Interview with Judge Ken Hodges

By Aimee Maxwell

Judge Kenneth “Ken” Bryant Hodges, III was elected to the Court of Appeals in 2018 and took office on January 1, 2019. 

AM: Please tell us a little about your background. Where did you grow up? What’s your educational background? 

I was born and raised in Albany, Georgia. My dad decided to go to law school later in life, so during elementary school our family moved to Athens to be with him. We returned to Albany after he graduated and I attended school there until I went to high school in Virginia. Upon graduation, I returned to Georgia to attend college at Emory University. I knew I was going to follow my dad’s career and go to law school, so at Emory I majored in Political Science and Sociology. I also minored in English because I knew the law required good writing skills. I went directly to law school at the University of Georgia. I really loved UGA Law and during my three years in Athens I never missed a home football game. The best part of law school was participating in the clinical program. I worked under the Third Year Student Practice Act in the public defender clinic. The school required we work 20 hours at the clinic, but I was there more than 40 hours a week. By the time I graduated, I had extensive courtroom experience and had served as lead counsel in a jury trial. After law school, I took a job with the Atlanta litigation firm of Fortson & White. A year and a half later, I returned home to Albany, where I took a position as an Assistant District Attorney because I really wanted to be in the courtroom. The first week I was there I tried two felony cases back – to – back with no assistance. It was fantastic. I was willing to take on any case, I just wanted to be in the courtroom. I stayed at the DA’s office for several years before leaving to help my dad with his practice when he became ill. In 1996, I ran for District Attorney of the Dougherty Judicial Circuit. I felt my predecessor was not working in the best interest of victims of crime or taxpayers. Cases, including death penalty cases, regularly took years to come to trial. In fact, when I was elected, the Dougherty Circuit had more death penalty cases pending than anywhere else in Georgia. I knew I could do a better job and that the people in Dougherty County deserved better. In January 1997 at age 30, I was sworn in as their District Attorney and served the citizens for 12 years. While I was District Attorney, one of my primary focuses was protecting children in our county. I set up one of Georgia’s first child advocacy centers, the Lilypad. I am proud to say that it now serves more than 30 counties in southwest Georgia. Upon leaving the DA’s office, I was given the opportunity to open and manage the Atlanta office of a national healthcare practice. While I enjoyed the challenge of working in a new area of law, I missed both the courtroom and public service. When the opportunity presented itself in 2010, I ran for Attorney General. Despite earning more votes than any other state-wide Democratic candidate that year, I was not successful. I transitioned back to litigation when I joined Ashe, Rafuse and Hill, which was ultimately acquired by a large national firm. After a year, I decided to open my own firm with offices in Atlanta and Albany. Three years later I successfully ran for the Court of Appeals of Georgia. 

AM: How did your previous jobs prepare you to serve on the Court of Appeals of Georgia? 

I was extremely well prepared to serve on the Court of Appeals of Georgia. I have one of the most diverse legal backgrounds on the Court. During my 27 years practicing law, I have prosecuted and defended criminal cases and have worked on both sides of civil cases. I have represented individuals, small businesses, and multinational corporations. I have owned my own firm and worked in a large national firm. I have also served as a court appointed receiver and mediator. Having handled cases at every level of court, and across multiple disciplines, I have some level of experience with many of the types of cases that come before the court. The work is quite different from my litigation practice; however, it is rewarding and I enjoy it immensely. 

AM: What motivated you to study law? 

My dad. He went back to law school later in life. I remember seeing Dad study and I knew what he was doing was important. I saw him help people with their problems. Early in his career, Dad worked as an assistant public defender in municipal court. During summers, I would go to court with Dad and watch him defend people while Loring Gray, who later became the Chief Superior Court Judge during my tenure as DA, would prosecute them. We would then head over to the diner next door with other lawyers to share war stories over coffee (milkshakes for me). Their stories fascinated me, and I knew they were helping people. I wanted to do that too. 

AM: What are your passions when you are off the bench? 

My family. I head home to Albany every weekend. My wife, Melissa, and I cherish the time with our two kids, Margaret and Jack. The kids keep me young and active and teach me something every day. We also have a new English cocker spaniel, Buzzy, who entertains us all. In addition, I am passionate about my service to the State Bar. Earlier this month, I completed my term as President of the State Bar of Georgia. I enjoyed bringing people together to solve issues. During my term as President I focused on three issues: helping establish a Business Court; helping lawyers in crisis; and mandating professional liability insurance for all lawyers. I was able to accomplish two of my goals. I successfully brought the Bar and the Chamber of Commerce together to find common ground and worked with the Georgia Legislature as they passed groundbreaking legislation establishing Georgia’s new Business Court. I also worked with the Bar’s Wellness Committee to reconfirm our commitment to assisting lawyers who are in need of help with issues of addiction, depression, or any other debilitating issue. While the Bar has not mandated professional liability insurance yet, I intend to continue to champion this effort as we continue to address the issue. In my down time, I like to hunt birds, mostly pheasant, turkey and quail. I am a pilot and am trying to spend more time flying. When I am not in the air I am often in the car, traveling from Atlanta to Albany. During those drives, I enjoy listening to audio books. I’m a fan of legal focused stories, spy novels, and political biographies. 

AM:  Who has influenced your career? 

Foremost, my father. Dad’s law partner, Bill Erwin, was also an early influence and remains a close friend. John Howard, the first lawyer I worked for in Atlanta, also remains a friend and mentor. As an elected District Attorney, I relied on Bob Keller. Bob was the elected DA in Clayton County for 30 years and was an invaluable resource. I’ve had many mentors who were judges, including Judge Herbert Phipps, Judge Loring Gray and Judge Ed Johnson. I practiced as a prosecutor before Judge Stephen Goss when we were in the Juvenile Court of Dougherty County. I have always considered Judge Goss a friend and am pleased to now serve on the Court with him. My new colleagues are also very helpful. Chief Judge Dillard and Presiding Judge McFadden offered sound advice in my transition and all of the judges on the court are very generous with their time and expertise. I feel like I can walk into the chambers of any of the 14 judges and ask their advice. 

AM: So far what do you feel is the most rewarding part of being a Court of Appeals Judge? Hardest part of the job? 

I enjoy the diversity of the cases we hear. It is never boring. I ran for this judgeship because I wanted to reenter public service. I wanted to make a difference on a more global scale. As a lawyer, you make a difference on an individual level one case at a time but as an appellate judge, I make a difference state-wide. I have the opportunity to ensure that the rule of law is followed. As I said before, the judges I work with are wonderful colleagues. I enjoy working with them to determine the correct resolution of a case. Oftentimes this involves advocating with the other judges on my panel. I am also grateful for the outstanding staff attorneys I work with who assist with research and writing. I find that the hardest cases we review are the parental termination cases. You want to be supportive of parents, but you need to protect children. Having advocated for children as a prosecutor, I know these cases are particularly difficult. As an appellate judge, I do not always get to do what I wish I could, the law can restrain me. Sometimes the right legal decision in a case is unpleasant or disappointing. But consistent and fair interpretation of laws is paramount however. It is my job as a judge to ensure impartial justice for everyone.