JC/AOC staffer, Noelle Lagueux-Alvarez, recently sat down with her colleague, Diana Rugh Johnson, the new Director of the Court Improvement Program under the Supreme Court of Georgia’s Committee on Justice for Children. Interview condensed and edited for clarity.
Noelle Lagueux-Alvarez: Thank you for doing this, Diana. Although we talk frequently as colleagues, it’s great to speak with you in this capacity.
Diana Rugh Johnson: My pleasure, Noelle.
NLA: Would you please take a minute to share your professional background with our readers?
Diana Rugh Johnson: I’d be happy to. I’m a second career lawyer. I have a master’s degree in biochemistry, and I worked for six years for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as an analytical chemist. For law school, I attended Georgia State University’s College of Law night program and was admitted to the bar in 2005.
NLA: How did you like the night program at Georgia State’s College of Law?
Diana Rugh Johnson: It was great. I’d heard so much about the social politics of law school but in the night program, there was none of that. It was just a bunch of chemists, accountants, cops, and nurses trying to get through law school to get their degrees. We were older, so no one was interested in the politics of intimidation that I think goes on in traditional day programs.
NLA: What drew you to the role of Director of the Court Improvement Program?
Diana Rugh Johnson: I have worked in child welfare for my entire legal career as both an attorney and as a Juvenile Court Judge pro tem. In the trenches and on the bench, there were constant frustrations. I often found myself saying, “oh, I wish this were different,” or “I wish there were more trainings on this or that.” So, when the CIP Director position came open, it was the chance for me to make some of those changes that I had wanted to see when I was practicing.
NLA: What do you hope to achieve in your new role?
Diana Rugh Johnson: During my time as a practitioner, I was always grateful to the Court Improvement Program for providing access to training—whether putting on its own trainings or providing funds for attorneys to attend conferences. That is something I plan to continue and to expand, especially for lawyers and judges outside of Metro Atlanta. Now that we’ve all learned to use virtual or hybrid formats, the Court Improvement Program can offer greater accessibility to training that doesn’t require driving to Atlanta.
I also want the Court Improvement Program to foster a robust and productive working relationship between all child welfare professionals, which is sometimes hard to do because we exist in an adversarial system. However, CIP can support all child welfare professionals to perform at their best which, in turn, improves the system and the outcomes for children and families.
I also want to maximize the use of newly-available Title IV-E funding for legal representation in the child welfare system. Child welfare representation is at its best when those attorneys are specialized in child welfare. Unfortunately, at present, it’s very difficult to make a living as a full-time child welfare attorney unless you are a SAAG, or you’re lucky enough to be in a child representation office or a parent representation office, of which there are very few in Georgia. So, I want to maximize the use of that Title IV-E funding to make careers in child welfare viable. We won’t improve as a system if the majority of our practitioners are just doing dependency law on the side—if it’s not the focus of their practice. This is why I want to increase the number of certified Child Welfare Law Specialists in Georgia.
NLA: Switching gears, what do you enjoy doing in your free time?
In my spare time, because I have two teenage boys, I do a lot of cooking. During the height of the pandemic, it was practically a full-time job.
I enjoy being an advisor for the Clemson University chapter of my sorority, Delta Gamma. I also serve on Delta Gamma’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Advisory Commission.
And, of course, college football.
NLA: Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
Diana Rugh Johnson: Yes, as CIP Director, the most important thing to me is to be useful and helpful to both the courts and to practitioners.
NLA: And, that’s how you see yourself—as a resource, as a help?
Diana Rugh Johnson: Yes, exactly.