Focused on Safety, Public Access, and Getting Things Done in Athens-Clarke County: An Interview with Superior Court Judge Lisa Lott

Judge Lisa Lott
Western Judicial Circuit Superior Court

Noelle Lagueux-Alvarez:  How long have you served as a judge and what was your path to the bench?

Judge Lott:  I took the bench in January 2019. So, I have been a judge for a little over a year and a half.  My path to the bench started in 1994 when I graduated from Emory Law School.  After law school, I worked as a prosecutor in Gwinnett County.  It was really hard to get a job at that time.  Danny Porter in Gwinnett County offered me an unpaid position, and I jumped at that chance to gain invaluable experience.  From there, I went to work for the Council of Juvenile Court Judges with Eric John, and that was a great job.  But, not long after, I got a call from Danny Porter offering me a trial attorney position which was one of my career goals. So, I left the Council of Juvenile Court Judges, despite loving that job and working with Eric John, and returned to the Gwinnett County District Attorney’s Office.  After that, I worked for one year as a staff attorney and lobbyist for what was then called the Georgia Indigent Defense Council which was a precursor to the Georgia Public Defender Council.   I enjoyed the staff attorney work and while being a lobbyist was interesting, I learned it did not suit me.   After that I practiced at a family law firm in Roswell.  After getting married and moving to Athens in 2000, I accepted a position with the Public Defender’s Office and promised to stay for at least two years, but I stayed for eighteen!  I decided to run for the Superior Court bench in 2018 and was elected in May 2018. 

NL-A:  That’s a rich work history with varied experiences. 

Judge Lott:  Yes, it’s great if somebody can stay on the same path for a long time, if that’s what they want to do, but I think it’s really important for lawyers to have a variety of experiences.  I think it made me a better lawyer and now informs my role as a judge.

NL-A:  How has your court adapted during the COVID-19 crisis in order to continue to serve your community?

Judge Lott:  We have completely transformed everything we do.  Initially, we transformed everything we did to follow Chief Justice Melton’s first emergency order in March of 2020, and of course, we’ve continued to transform to remain in compliance with all of the subsequent emergency orders and with Governor Kemp’s orders as well.   

We transformed the way we do things in order to help protect the health of all litigants and all court staff as much as possible.  It was actually easier to implement changes than originally thought. Once you have everyone’s safety as your first and foremost concern, then your second concern is to make sure that you are getting things done.  You have two focuses, and everything just revolves around that. And so, it didn’t seem chaotic.  We haven’t felt out of sorts because we’ve always had those two goals in mind. That’s been our mantra, to keep everybody as safe as possible and to get things done.

Our greatest resource is WebEx, which we use for videoconferencing.  It has been absolutely amazing.  I cover the pro se docket here in Clarke County.  What is interesting is that even in the cases where one side is represented by a lawyer, almost everyone is happy to be on Webex—I’d estimate a 98% satisfaction rate.   Many people do not want to travel to the courthouse, or they have children at home, or they care for an elderly relative, or they are caring for someone with a pre-existing condition, or they’re very worried about coming to a place with a lot of people.  Far and away, I’ve found that people are really happy to do things via videoconferencing.  I’ve posted on my website that I will only have an in-person hearing if all parties agree, and no one has jumped at the chance.  Everybody wants to do it on WebEx.  It’s been wonderfully surprising.  

We are not only concerned with safety and getting things done, but also maintaining an open courtroom.  The necessity of an open courtroom is a paramount concern, of course, to ensure that Georgia law is followed appropriately.  That’s why, for example, I am usually the only person in the courtroom, with my computer logged into WebEx–to ensure that the courtroom remains open to the public.

We’ve also found that we are more efficient and getting more done via WebEx especially with divorce cases.  That’s been a silver lining. We’re going to continue with WebEx in the future, even if there’s a vaccine and things go back to quasi normal.

NL-A:  Do you have any best practices that you’d like to share?

Judge Lott:  Yes, for proceedings via WebEx, we require that attorneys submit their exhibits 24 hours in advance.  Of course, I will say that doesn’t always happen, but we try.  They submit exhibits to the court and serve them on the other party electronically. There is also a way to share documents live online, and the attorneys seem to have mastered that pretty well when they have to enter an exhibit.

One thing you must have for these electronic hearings is patience because, inevitably, something will go awry: an attorney’s office does not have great bandwidth, a self-represented litigant is having trouble getting on WebEx, a party doesn’t have access to the internet, etc. 

I can’t begin to tell you how many divorces hearings I’ve handled where somebody is getting divorced in their car on their cell phone. I had a woman the other day who was coming home from working at the poultry plant. She had on all of her gear–covered from head to toe with the necessary special equipment–but she needed to get divorced.  She had to drive a bit to get decent internet service, but we got it done, and she didn’t have to take off work.  That’s what I mean when I say you have to have patience and flexibility.

Also, we have a program set up at the Clark County jail called Star Leaf which I think a lot of other jurisdictions have, too.  We also use WebEx, FaceTime, and cell phones in conjunction with Star Leaf. For example, I had a hearing where the inmate was on Star Leaf, the attorney was on WebEx, a parent was on FaceTime, and somebody else was on a cell phone.  We have everything going on at the same time and you must have a level of good humor and patience about it.

NL-A:  These are certainly challenging times, but do you have any bright spot or success you wanted to share?

Judge Lott:   Recently, I was sentencing a juvenile who was at a RYDC and we had him on WebEx, but his parents were in the courtroom.  We were not able to get his picture up on our monitor for his parents to see, so we gave his parents a laptop. This young man, who was 15 years old, could see his parents and they could see him as he took a very adult plea. It was one of those moments that needed to happen. He needed to see his parents and they needed to see him, and we made it happen. With a little bit of creativity, flexibility, and patience, you can get things done.

When I became a judge, little did I know that one day my courtroom would come to resemble that old game show “Hollywood Squares,” but it really works well. Everybody seems to be so much more content and less stressed. Even though attorneys have had to adjust the process for admitting evidence—no more walking from one table to the other, showing the other side your documents, etc. —it seems to work well.  WebEx, and I think most other videoconferencing options, also have functions that allow you to sequester witnesses. You can add them when they’re ready to be heard, as opposed to worrying about whether they’re waiting in the next room listening to all the testimony.

Using videoconferencing has been a positive thing. People seem to be really satisfied that we can move forward, get stuff done, and still be as safe as possible.