Northern District of Georgia's New Chief Judge Reflects on Her Career

Judge Julie Carnes said she planned to become an English professor before impulsively taking the LSAT

, Daily Report


U.S. District Court Chief Judge Julie E. Carnes of the Northern District of Georgia recently tried an experiment.

She came down from the bench and, in her judicial robes, sat down at the defense table next to a defendant on supervised release.

She said she asked him how he was doing, if he was working, and told him he could make it. She said she wanted to let him know that she appreciated his efforts to follow the rules, and "that someone is paying attention."

The probationer, she said, "was startled, very startled."

Carnes said she is thinking about meeting once a month in the same way with a probationer she has sentenced. She called it an experiment in tackling recidivism rates. In inaugurating the experiment, "I decided to be my own guinea pig," she said.

When felons are released from prison, Carnes said they often have little or no family support, no housing and lack even basic job skills. Directing them to find a place to live and get a job may not be enough, she suggested. But encouragement from the judge who sentenced them just might offer them a rare incentive to believe they can make it.

On Jan. 1, Carnes, 58, became the chief judge of the Northern District of Georgia. Appointed by President George H.W. Bush in 1992, Carnes has been a federal judge for 16 years. She came to the bench as a career prosecutor in Atlanta who had served as appellate chief under three U.S. Attorneys and as one of seven members of the U.S. Sentencing Commission, a post to which Bush had also appointed her and that she held for six years, until 1996.

Carnes grew up in southeast Atlanta. She remembers, as a child, going door-to-door campaigning for her father, Charles L. Carnes -- a former Georgia legislator and, for years, the chief judge of the Fulton County State Court. The Charles L. Carnes Justice Center Building, part of the county courthouse complex in downtown Atlanta, is named for him.

Her father, now 82, took senior status in 1998, and he and his wife recently celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary.

Her father, Carnes said, "is a remarkable man. He was elected 17 times to be chief of his court." And, she said, "People like him. ... A week wouldn't go by that I wouldn't hear, 'I know your dad. He's a great guy.'"

Carnes said that she used to think people were simply trying to ingratiate themselves with her by complimenting her father. But she came to realize they were sincere. "My dad is just a terrific leader. He can build consensus better than anybody I know. He's very kind, and he also is very firm. He was absolutely dedicated to his court. He was insistent that everything he did be for the benefit of the court and the judicial system."

Her father's profession didn't prompt Carnes to pursue the law as a career. A National Merit scholar at the University of Georgia, Carnes was an English major. She wanted to get a doctorate in English and was accepted into several graduate programs her senior year. "I always thought I'd be an English teacher," she said. "I love reading; I love to teach. ... Nothing struck me about the law as interesting as reading really great novels." But in March of her senior year at UGA, "I impulsively took the last LSAT," she recalled. She had taken no LSAT prep courses. "I took it cold. ... It worked out well. " She entered UGA's law school the following fall. She said the study of law "meshed pretty well with my writing skills, my analytical skills."

To this day, she values the wordcraft in well-written legal briefs and judicial opinions as highly as she does the intellectual strength of the legal analysis.

Carnes graduated magna cum laude in law in 1975. She began her law career clerking for 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Senior Judge Lewis R. "Pete" Morgan at the federal courthouse in Newnan. Appointed as a federal district judge by President John F. Kennedy in 1961, Morgan had served for seven years (three of them as chief judge) before President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed him to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 1968. When the 11th Circuit was created in 1981, Morgan joined the 11th Circuit, where he remained as a senior judge until 1996.

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