Melissa M. Calhoun, an attorney from Effingham County, and Donald O. Sheppard III, an attorney from Screven County, are preparing to begin service July 1 as the judges of the new Ogeechee Judicial Circuit Juvenile Court.
With the creation of this court, the Ogeechee Circuit ceases to be the only one of Georgia’s 49 judicial circuits without separate juvenile court judges. Until now, the three elected Superior Court judges have divided up the juvenile cases from Bulloch, Effingham, Screven and Jenkins counties.
After accepting applications from lawyers throughout the four-county circuit, the Superior Court judges – Chief Judge Gates F. Peed, Judge Michael T. Muldrew and Judge Lovett Bennett Jr. – selected Calhoun and Sheppard and announced the decision in mid-April. Calhoun and Sheppard then attended two to three days of training during the Georgia Council of Juvenile Court Judges conference at St. Simons the first full week of May.
“I’m not a politician type, I should say, so the thought of running for something never appealed to me, but I’m honored to be selected,” Calhoun said in a phone interview. “It’s a little bit intimidating right now, since we’re doing this fresh, trying to get it right, but obviously there are going to be ups and downs and a learning curve to this.”
Each of the two Juvenile Court judges will work part-time, officially. They can also continue in private practice as attorneys except that they cannot handle any cases that would go before the Juvenile Court or otherwise conflict with their service as judges.
Calhoun has worked with family and juvenile-related cases throughout her 20 years as an attorney in Georgia courts.
Originally from Illinois, she attained her bachelor’s degree from Northern Illinois University in DeKalb. Then she went to the Cumberland School of Law of Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama, receiving her law degree in 1988. Calhoun practiced law first in Illinois, becoming a partner in a firm eventually known as Braud Westensee.
But she married a Southerner, and they moved to Georgia around 1998, practicing law as a partner in what was then Daly, Bowen & Calhoun in downtown Savannah. At first she handled personal injury cases as well as working with Department of Family and Children Services, or DFCS, cases in Chatham County.
About 15 years ago Calhoun stopped taking personal injury cases and shifted to DFCS-related work, such as dependency cases, and domestic and guardian ad litem work – in other words, things related to juvenile and family law – exclusively, she said.
She also moved to Rincon in Effingham County around that time and now has a solo practice there. She and her husband, Wally, have two sons, ages 17 and 19.
Donald Sheppard, a native of Screven County, is a partner with Grady Reddick in Reddick & Sheppard PC, based in Sylvania, and is currently judge of the Sylvania, Hiltonia and Rocky Ford municipal courts.
After graduating from Screven County High School, Sheppard went to Young Harris College in northern Georgia for an associate degree and then to Presbyterian College in Clinton, South Carolina, for his bachelor’s degree. He attained his law degree from Atlanta’s John Marshall Law School in 2008, after first working as a summer intern through law school with Reddick, and then joined his long-established practice.
“I’ve been in juvenile courts practicing for my whole career,” Sheppard said. “I’m just looking forward to taking on this challenge and hopefully just improving the whole court system in general, taking some of the pressure off the caseload of the Superior Court and just looking forward to working with all three of those judges in making this successful.”
He and his wife, Stephanie, have two daughters, one 11 years old and the other about 10 months.
The April 18 announcement of the Juvenile Court appointments appeared under the names of the three Superior Court judges but quoted none of them in particular.
“The Court was pleasantly surprised to receive numerous applications from many well qualified and experienced attorneys in the Circuit,” it stated in part. “After careful deliberation and discussion the Judges of the Superior Court selected Mr. Sheppard and Ms. Calhoun to fill the Juvenile Court Judgeships.”
Both will give up portions of their private-practice work to be judges of the new court.
Representing parents in DFCS cases, representing children in Department of Juvenile Justice cases and serving as a guardian ad litem has made up a large part of Sheppard’s practice.
“Of course that will cease come July 1,” he said. “But other than that, mainly my practice will be limited to real estate and probate and estate planning and, I guess, general civil practice.”
Calhoun said she will have to give up her DFCS-related cases but hopes to continue the guardian ad litem work she does and doesn’t want to give up contested domestic issues that would involve the Superior Court but not the Juvenile Court.
Noting that being a judge requires commitment, Calhoun expressed some doubt that her work for the Juvenile Court will be contained to half of each week.
“I think it will spread over because I don’t want to shortchange anything by looking at a timeclock and saying that ‘Time’s over, two and a half days, that’s it,’” she said.
Beyond the seminar at St. Simons, the new judges are required to observe juvenile courts at work in other counties. Ten hours of observations are required, according to Calhoun, who said it doesn’t have to be done immediately, but she hopes to fit her visits into June as much as possible.
Effective with the new state budget July 1, the Ogeechee Judicial Circuit for the first time is taking advantage of $100,000 in annual state funding that has long been available to pay one or more juvenile judges. But that money can only be used for the judges’ salaries and will be split between them, Chief Judge Peed explained in a December interview.
Other expenses are being divided among the four counties on the basis of population, with Bulloch County paying the largest share, about 47 percent. Peed presented county commissioners a budget for the Juvenile Court totaling $175,530, with the counties together to pay $75,530. The largest items in that, said Bulloch County Manager Tom Couch, are $35,000 for a secretary and $19,200 for contracting court reporters, the individuals who create official transcripts.
Bulloch’s share to pay totals $35,740. Some details, such as which county will handle the bookkeeping, are still being firmed up.
“We’ll all figure it out by July 1, how we want to move the money around, but in our case we’ve already fit our share into the budget,” Couch said Friday.
The Statesboro Herald sought photos of both judges to use with this story, but had not received one from Calhoun as of Friday.
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.