We caught up with 85-year-old Senior Judge Kenneth Followill, who we learned served as the first secretary of the then newly-created Judicial Council in 1973. He received the Amicus Curiae Award from Justice Leah Sears while she was Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Georgia. Senior Judge Followill was also the guitarist in a jazz combo, and even cut an album. He is good friends with former State Bar President Sonny Seiler (who also served on the Judicial Council which he discussed in this video) and they spent many Saint Patrick’s Day celebrations in Savannah together—he’s looking forward to the return of those celebrations.
Edited and condensed for clarity
Michelle Barclay: What was your path to law school and then eventually to being a Georgia judge?
Senior Judge Followill: I attended public schools in Columbus, then got my B.A. from the University of the South and my law degree from Emory. My plan was to join my family business which was a federal savings and loan association founded by my grandfather and carried on by my father and brother. I thought a legal education would be an asset, though a business law course would have sufficed. Midway through law school, I took time off to fulfill my active duty military obligation and graduated from the military police school. I went back to finish up law school, passed the bar, then returned to Columbus and worked with a sole practitioner specializing in real estate law, but I was able to do other things as well. I got away from the idea of becoming a banker. It was not unusual for us young lawyers to be assigned criminal cases and given little time for preparation. Once I got a death penalty case on a Friday afternoon and was told to be ready to go to trial on Monday morning. I enjoyed being in court and decided to run for and was elected Solicitor of the City Court, later renamed the State Court. On paper it was a part-time job, but it took up 75% of my time. I was still able to do title work and a few other things of a civil and domestic nature. In 1970, I ran for the full-time judgeship of the City Court and was elected. Then in 1978, I was appointed to the Superior Courts of the Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit from which I took senior status in 2009.
Michelle Barclay: You were part of the original Judicial Council created in 1973 by statute. Tell us about that creation.
Judge Followill: I was not in on the planning. I received a call in late April of 1973 from Governor Jimmy Carter’s executive counsel asking if I were opposed to any of the Governor’s programs. I didn’t even know what they were, but anyway I was told that I had been appointed to the new Judicial Council and when to come to Atlanta to be sworn in. There, I met the other fellows who were to become members. This was to include five Superior Court judges, a Probate and a State Court judge, a Court of Appeals judge, a Supreme Court justice, the current president and the immediate past president of the State Bar. Sonny Seiler was the current president and I believe he and I are the only two surviving of the original members. Several of us had presided over our respective councils, which may have had some bearing upon our selection. A memorable moment occurred when the Governor read us a letter from another Superior Court judge inferring betrayal of an alleged agreement to give Superior Court judges a majority of the votes. Immediately, one of the five who had just been sworn in, resigned and left. He rejoined some years later and served well, but we had to fill the unexpected vacancy quickly. Still, it made me wonder what the heck I had gotten into. Our organizational meeting was held at the Summer Conference of the State Bar in Savannah where Court of Appeals Judge (later Supreme Court Justice and U.S. District Court Judge) Robert Hall was elected Chairman. I believe he was the primary architect of the new Judicial Council which grew out of the Commission on Judicial Processes. Our first Director was a Texan, Jim Dunlap, but soon was replaced by Bob Doss, a native Georgian. Later in the summer, we hired Russell Sewell, who had just graduated from the University of Georgia Law School, to be our legal counsel. That first year, I was elected as secretary. We soon moved the administrative office to the North Lake Mall. I can still remember the phone number for the AOC, 404-656-5171, although I have to look up those of my own family!
On the way home from that Savannah meeting, I was in a car wreck. I can remember working on the minutes of that meeting while lying in my hospital bed.
Michelle Barclay: What was the work of the Judicial Council in those early years?
Senior Judge Followill: I was on the Judicial Council for 3 of its initial years eventually becoming Chair, succeeding Judge Hal Bell. Judge Ernest Tidwell was Chair before me. There was a lot of concern and discussion about a unified court system, but I felt the underlying purpose of the Judicial Council was to bring some level of organization to the courts of Georgia. The courts, at that time, were scattered over the state with different duties, jurisdictions, and names. We thought things could be more unified, not necessarily uniform. Governor Carter had ideas about organizing much of the state government, so the creation of a Judicial Council was part of that concept. So, we successfully pushed for an amendment to the Georgia Constitution for the establishment of a unified system.
We would have several meetings a year, but our meetings would last 2 or 3 days of solid work and we met all over the state. We commissioned a survey of the judicial facilities of Georgia which was a collection of all of our courthouses and courtrooms in Georgia with architectural drawings and other pertinent information. I still have my copy of that very large report consisting of four volumes. We created the Board of Court Reporting to standardize that work. Judge Walter McMillan took on the job of designing a juvenile court master plan. Another project was seeking to standard our case counting methodology.
As a working group, we became very close. We were not just looking to try to benefit our own particular class of court. For the most part, we worked together on the idea that we should try to make the whole system better. We wanted to use our staff, the Administrative Office of the Courts, to be a clearinghouse for ideas and to provide the support that different courts would need. We ended up working together beautifully and I was truly honored to be elected their Chair. I believe I was one of the last non-Supreme Court Justice Chairs.
Michelle Barclay: Why was that?
Senior Judge Followill: We still were met with some distrust about a unified system. Governor Carter had made it clear that he did not want to see any new judicial circuits created. We decided we would add judges, as necessary, after doing judicial manpower studies. After my term had ended, there was talk about creating a new judicial circuit with a lot of political considerations in that area. The Judicial Council opposed new circuits because the agreed-upon policy had not been followed, and again, we were supportive of the idea of adding more judges, not circuits. That stance led to a bill being introduced in the General Assembly to abolish the Administrative Office of the Courts. That bill was defeated by a very close vote, from what I can remember, which led to the Supreme Court playing a stronger role within the judiciary with the Chief Justice becoming permanent Chair of the Judicial Council. This incident coupled with the creation of the administrative district system and the growing dependency upon state funding (the federal LEAA funds had about dried up) no doubt led to the decision to seek the protection of the Supreme Court.
Michelle Barclay: Now that you’ve retired, do you think the Judicial Council has turned out the way it was envisioned?
Senior Judge Followill: Yes, I do. There were some rough times, some opposition to overcome, but we had a lot of support among the Georgia judges as well. The near loss of the AOC was a close call as far as I can tell, but the Council and AOC are still doing a terrific job of information distribution and assistance. Also, the trial courts have changed so much over the years. We used to hear some of the old judges say that the Superior Courts were going to become nothing but felony criminal courts, they won’t be doing anything else, but that has not really happened. The trial courts still have incredible responsibilities, but now have mediation and arbitration which have made a tremendous difference in the administration of justice. We also celebrate the development of accountability courts such as: drug courts, veterans courts, mental health courts, and the like. These developments–or tools–help with civil, criminal, and domestic issues and allow for pathways to triage where issues should best go. So, I think things are on the right track. It takes an awful lot of help or grease to keep the wheels of justice turning. If we hadn’t moved toward a unified system in 1973, then there is no telling what shape the judiciary would be in as a result of the pandemic. Chief Justice Melton, with the aid of the JC/AOC, has led a super-human response.
Michelle Barclay: Last question, what do you think about the future of the judicial branch of Georgia?
Senior Judge Followill: I think the budget for the judicial branch should be increased. When I was first on the Council, we learned that the entire judicial system of Georgia was allotted one half of 1% of the total budget of the state. I don’t think that percentage has changed enough. Also, I really appreciate the recent letter to the editor written by Judge Tain Kell titled: COVID Hasn’t Been a ‘Vacation’ for the Courts. In Cobb County alone, over the past 10 months preceding the writing of that letter, the judge explained that the judges have held 7,508 civil hearings and closed 6,054 civil cases, and they had to redo the way they worked to keep everyone safe. The logistics to make that sort of work shift is to be applauded. The judicial branch of Georgia must do a better job of telling its own story of the good work it does.