Judge William E. Woodrum Jr., one of the three Superior Court judges of the Ogeechee Judicial Circuit for 22½ years and its chief judge since the beginning of 2001, will retire July 31.
He will be one year and seven months into his final four-year elected term as a judge for the circuit, which covers Bulloch, Effingham, Jenkins and Screven counties. The process to appoint a successor for the remainder of that term is well underway, since he notified Gov. Nathan Deal of his retirement plans in a May 7 letter.
Having served more than a decade as Jenkins County State Court judge prior to his Superior Court tenure, Woodrum, now 66, has more than 30 years credit in the state retirement system. Further full-time work in the system would not benefit him financially, and that plays a part in the timing of his decision, he said in an interview Monday.
“That plays a major part in it, and right now I’m to the point where I think it’s better for some other folks to come along and serve the court system,” Woodrum said.
He added that he hopes to serve as a senior judge, filling in as needed and not necessarily just in this circuit. For example, Judge John R. “Robbie” Turner, who retired from the Ogeechee Circuit bench in December 2016, is now active as a senior judge.
“Hopefully I can move to a senior status, which would allow me to hear cases here locally or in other parts of the state of Georgia,” Woodrum said. “That would be kind of a new endeavor for me, so it would give me an opportunity to be out and see how things are otherwise from here. I’m looking for sort of a new adventure.”
A senior judgeship requires an appointment from the governor. If it doesn’t work out, Woodrum said, he will take what he has learned as a judge and move on to another area of the practice of law.
Woodrum also answered questions on some topics more or less related to his retirement, including the continuation of the Mental Health Court program he has presided over, now to be accompanied by a relaunch of the Drug Court, and the continued absence of a Juvenile Court. These will be the subject of separate stories.
The Woodrum family has a long history in Bulloch County, but the retiring judge is a Millen native and Jenkins County resident. His grandfather, also named William Woodrum, was a Bulloch native but moved to Jenkins, went to law school, and became Superior Court judge in the early decades of the 20th century.
The current Judge Woodrum graduated from what was then Georgia Southern College in 1974. He started graduate school at the University of Georgia but then decided to become a lawyer and chose Augusta Law School, then operating in Augusta, to be closer to home.
Admitted to the practice of law in 1979, he opened his own general law practice in Millen, where in the early 1980s the city appointed him judge of its Recorder’s Court. He next became Jenkins County State Court judge by appointment from the governor. Woodrum continued as judge of both local courts in Millen until he was appointed to the newly created third Superior Court judgeship for the Ogeechee Circuit in 1995. Now retired Judge Faye Sanders Martin and the late Judge William J. Neville were the established judges when he arrived.
No one else has served in the slot Woodrum holds since it was created, and he has never faced a challenger in an election.
“It was a dream come true to be able to come from a small county and serve in this circuit, to serve for this number of years and also never to have anyone run against me during that period of time, and I’ve been very fortunate from that standpoint,” Woodrum said.
He became chief judge after Martin retired in 2000. Judge F. Gates Peed is now in line to become chief judge in August. The position is based on seniority, and Judge Michael Muldrew, elected in 2016 to succeed Turner, has been on the bench just 18 months.
As accomplishments during his tenure, Woodrum cited the effectiveness and efficiency of the circuit’s courts in moving cases “at a minimum of cost” and the creation of a mediation program as well as accountability courts, as the drug and mental health programs are called.
The mediation program has helped alleviate the court’s increasing workload, especially with family-related civil cases and private warrants, he said.
The decision to create that program was made by the three judges at the time together and not the chief judge alone, Woodrum said.
“Let me make clear. … If we have any major issue or any issue that has any importance to it, all judges during my term have come together at this table and discussed the cases and made a determination of what needs to be done with what may be before the court as far as its everyday operation is concerned,” he said. “It’s not one particular judge that makes the decision and says we’re going to do it this way.”
Woodrum has been very fortunate to work with these judges and those who came before them and with a good group of lawyers throughout the circuit, he said.
He also counts as a major accomplishment that he and his wife, Kathy Woodrum, were able to raise three children during these years. Two of them, daughter Betsy and son Daniel, graduated from law school. Betsy is a law clerk for a judge in another circuit, and Daniel is an Athens-based attorney. The Woodrums’ other daughter, Sarah, is now a doctoral student in education at Georgia Southern.
The four counties fund the courts, with state assistance for some programs. Funding shares are based on population, and Bulloch, the largest county, houses the circuit’s main offices.
“I’d like to thank all of the county commissioners through the years that have been able to work with this court system and make it possible to do what we’ve done, and I’d like to especially thank the Bulloch County commissioners,” Woodrum said. “They’ve taken a great deal of the load as far as the circuit is concerned.”
The Judicial Nominating Commission emailed attorneys in the Ogeechee Circuit in mid-May seeking nominations, including self-nominations, to be Woodrum’s successor. The notice gave May 31 as a deadline, with applicants to be interviewed after June 25. From those found “qualified” or “well qualified,” the commission will recommend a list of up to five candidates to Deal, the notice said.
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.