The staff of the 14th District Chancery Court threw a retirement party Friday afternoon, the likes of which it isn’t likely to see again.
For two hours, roughly 200 people — mostly court personnel, lawyers, family and friends of the retiring judges Dorothy Colom, Kenneth Burns and Jim Davidson — drifted in and out of the event, paying their respects to judges and trading stories at the Stephen D. Lee Home in Columbus.
Conspicuous by their absence were three people who will fill those positions on the bench. Paula Drungole-Ellis, Rodney Faver and Joe Studdard were all in Jackson, attending training for the positions they will assume in January.
The three will learn important information on court procedures, operations and protocol in Jackson, but there may not have been a better place to absorb the basics of what the job entails than at the Lee Home on Friday.
Combined, Colom, Burns and Davidson have served 52 years — 13 terms — on the chancery court bench in the district. Colom, with 24 years on the bench will be replaced by Drungole-Ellis. Burns will be replaced by Rodney Faver after 16 years on the bench, while Davidson will give way to Joe Studdard after 12 years as a chancery judge.
While each judge reached the decision to retire on their own, the timing seemed appropriate.
“I was very fortunate,” Davidson said. “I had these two to consult with, which was really important in the early years. But to tell you the truth, we still consult all the time. They both were a great resource for me to draw on.”
‘I just felt like I could do the job’
Although all three had practiced law for years before ascending to the bench — often arguing cases in chancery court — the subtle nuances of the job were something it took some time to acquire.
“I had some idea of what it would be like,” Davidson said. “But that doesn’t mean there weren’t a lot of things I had to learn.”
“It took me about five or six years to get comfortable,” Burns said.
Colom said she had been mentally preparing for the job almost as soon as she began practicing law.
“One of my first cases was in chancery court,” Colom said. “I won’t tell you the details or even the name of the judge, but I just felt like I could do a better job.
“I told one of the lawyers who is here today that I was going to get that job one day,” she added. “That was long before I ran for the position. It was at the very beginning of my career. I just felt like I could do the job.”
Serious cases, serious consequences
The role of a chancery judge is unique in many respects.
“There’s no red-letter law that tells you how to rule,” Davidson said. “And there’s no jury. It’s your decision to make and you have to make it based on your gut, what you believe is right.”
Colom said the nature of the cases that appear before a chancery judge add a heavy burden to the job.
“It was difficult when I started and it remained difficult throughout my tenure,” she said. “What you are doing is affecting people directly. You agonize over whether you made the right decision, especially the cases involving children — custody cases or termination of parental rights cases. Those are very difficult. None of those cases are what I would call easy.”
It was that burden, Davidson said, that weighed most heavily on him.
“Think about it,” he said. “We make a decision to send a child to Mama and she moves to Meridian. That child is going to live in a different neighborhood, go to a different school, have different friends, have different life experiences. Her whole life has changed. We can’t know how any of that will turn out. That’s a serious thing.”
The importance of listening
Given the stakes involved, Burns said the most important advice he can give to the new judges is pretty simple.
“Let everybody tell their story,” he said. “They are more apt to accept what you say if you really give them a chance to tell their side.”
Being a good listener also means better rulings, Colom and Davidson both said.
“You have to remember that you’re not seeing these people in the best of circumstances,” Davidson said. “It can be very emotional and some witnesses have a difficult time expressing themselves. You have to be very patient.”
Colom said she tries to be mindful of those stresses and mitigate them as much as possible.
“The judge sets the whole tone,” she said. “Not only are the witnesses under stress, but so are the attorneys. … It’s so important for you to make sure they know you are really listening to what they say. And it’s not just listening, but making eye contact. I’m always trying to make that connection — look them in the eye and have them look at me.
“It’s important to respect the litigants and the lawyers,” Colom added. “It always helps and never hurts.”
Burns said all of those factors make being a chancery judge unique in the profession.
“It’s the best job out there,” he said. “It’s also the toughest. I loved it.”
“I think all three of us feel that what we do matters, that it’s important,” Colom said.
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]