Old-Fashioned Values Support Modern Court Innovations

Written By: Karen Worthington

Judge Nancy Bills effortlessly combines old-fashioned values with modern approaches to difficult challenges. In her fourteen years as Rockdale County’s only State Court Judge, Judge Bills has created a DUI Court and a Family Violence Court and has led the Task Force Against Family Violence from being a near-dormant entity to an award-winning catalyst for community action.

These achievements are made possible in part because of Judge Bills’ adherence to back-to-basics values: Be prepared. Follow the rules. Act professionally. Be respectful. Collaborate. Honor commitments. Give back to your community. See things through to the end. Exercise regularly. Spend time with family.

With a solid grounding in her values, a belief in the goodness of people, and a commitment to collaboration, Judge Bills has improved how the Rockdale County State Court handles cases and helps the community.  For example, in 2007, she created the DUI (Driving Under the Influence) Court to address the root causes of DUI offenses. The goal is to break the cycle of addiction and related crimes through an intense combination of treatment, accountability, and court supervision. A key factor in the Court’s success is the team approach with a holistic focus on what is best for the client.

Ongoing innovation ensures the DUI Court achieves its desired results. For instance, after seeing the need to better support DUI Court participants, Judge Bills hired graduates of the court as peer specialists. “The addition of them on the team has taken us miles into the future,” she says. Several court graduates serve as mentors. Their journey from addiction to recovery allows them to connect with clients on a deeply personal level. They provide unique support from the perspective of a court defendant who achieved sobriety. Grants sustain this type of innovation. The team regularly seeks funding to try new approaches such as wraparound services to address the roots of addiction.

DUI Court graduations highlight the happy endings facilitated by the DUI Court and answer the question of why the court invests so much into each court participant. The DUI Court model requires judges to have biweekly face-to-face interactions with court participants. Judge Bills says “this requires the judge to go down the path with participants to relapse, to a new job, and eventually to graduation. Accompanying them on their roller coaster ride of recovery is both the most rewarding and draining part of my work as a judge.” A participant’s tenure with the DUI Court is typically one to two years, and the DUI Court team stays with each person through their entire time in court. “DUI Court graduations,” says Judge Bills, “make all the efforts worthwhile.”

Another example of an innovative solution is the Family Violence Court, which Judge Bills started in 2013 to expedite domestic violence cases and improve offender compliance. The idea for this court originated in the Rockdale County Task Force Against Family Violence, which she chairs. The Task Force’s mission is to end family violence in Rockdale County through a coordinated community response.

In 2006, the task force lacked a chairperson and had become dormant, remaining an entity in name only. Because of her interest in victim advocacy and a prior role as a founding member of the local domestic violence shelter, Judge Bills agreed to chair the Task Force temporarily. Two years later the Task Force was named the Georgia Commission on Family Violence “Task Force of the Year.” Twelve years later, Judge Bills is still the chair. In the intervening years, the Task Force helped the court obtain federal grants to prevent family violence-related homicides, Judge Bills was named Georgia’s 2011 Task Force Member of the Year, and the Task Force’s work informed the creation of the State Court Family Violence Court. This impressive record exemplifies the accomplishments resulting from her leadership.

Judge Bills’ leadership style and problem-solving approach consistently create conditions for success. When Judge Bills identifies a problem, she puts together a collaborative team with varying perspectives, identifies solutions with successful track records, builds community and financial support, and starts doing the work. Implementation is informed by others’ experiences with similar models, and continuous improvement is considered essential to ongoing success.

Judge Bills’ latest challenge is teen dating violence. Educating teens about healthy relationships means fewer incidents of domestic violence in the future, which is the goal of the Task Force’s prevention work. Community awareness and peer support and education are two proven prevention strategies that the Task Force Against Family Violence is implementing. Given that past experience is the best predictor of future success, with Judge Bills at the helm, Rockdale County will likely see a sharp increase in awareness of and responses to teen dating violence in the future.

For Judge Bills, community service, whether it is chairing the Task Force or coaching the high school mock trial team, is a continuation of why she serves as a judge: she is committed to improving her community. For now, her position as State Court Judge is her favorite way to give back. When asked how she feels about being a judge after fifteen years as a litigator with the District Attorney’s office and in private practice, she says, “It is the best job. I love it.”