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Mikell to retire as State Court judge Sept. 1
Shares observations from 19 years on the bench
mikell
After 19 years as the judge of the Bulloch County State Court, which followed four years as its solicitor general, Judge Gary L. Mikell will retire Sept. 1. - photo by By SCOTT BRYANT/staff

After 19 years as the judge of the Bulloch County State Court, which followed four years as its solicitor general, Judge Gary L. Mikell will retire Sept. 1.

That, he said, will be one day after his potential return on investment in the state judicial retirement system reaches its maximum, with 24 years creditable service, and by then he will be 65.

“A couple of years ago I started putting people in jail who were not born when I started this job,” Mikell said in an interview last week. “That’s when you start thinking, well, maybe my shelf life is starting to expire.”

His current four-year term would expire at the end of 2020. So, the Judicial Nominating Commission of Georgia recently sent notices to lawyers – members of the state bar – in Bulloch County seeking applicants to fill the unexpired term. Friday was the deadline for nominations from citizens, but July 10 is the deadline for completed applications from nominated lawyers.

Gov. Brian Kemp will ultimately make the appointment. The appointee, and potentially other candidates who qualify, will then need to seek a four-year term through next May’s nonpartisan election.

Only licensed attorneys who have practiced law at least seven years are eligible.

 

It takes patience

“Temperament is the main thing,” Mikell said when asked what is needed to do the job well. “Temperament, and patience being part of that, I guess. I mean, you don’t have to be a genius, but you have to have a good temperament for it, because there are constant efforts to try your patience.”

After a little laugh and a moment’s pause he added, “I think you have to like people, because it’s all about people.”

Unlike the Superior Court, which operates in a four-county circuit, the State Court is confined to a single county. On the criminal side, felony cases go to the Superior Court, while the State Court handles misdemeanors, charges that can result in up to a year and jail and fines up to $1,000. But these include such serious matters as domestic violence, driving under the influence and non-felony child abuse.

On the civil side, the State Court decides cases where a judgment for money is sought. Automobile accident cases are some of the most common of these in the local court, Mikell acknowledged.

 

The Gatto suit

But the court has also handled wrongful-death lawsuits. A noted example is Gatto v. Statesboro, in which the family of an 18-year-old Georgia Southern University freshman who died in 2014 from being beaten at a bar by another student – who then pleaded guilty to manslaughter in Superior Court – sued the city for negligence in its enforcement of alcoholic beverage laws. In two summary judgments, Mikell ruled that the city was not liable, but an appeal to the Georgia Court of Appeals is pending.

In fact, traffic citations initiate the majority of all cases filed in the Bulloch County State Court, but these take up relatively little of the court’s time because most people just pay the fines, Mikell said.

He estimates that roughly 250 civil cases, 2,000 misdemeanor cases and 4,000 traffic cases are filed with the court each year. That was reason enough to be temporarily at a loss for colorful anecdotes.

 

150,000 filings

“You know, it’s difficult, because the volume blurs out individual memories …  because I was looking at the numbers recently, and since I started as judge, as far as filing numbers there’s over 150,000,” Mikell said. “Now, a lot of that is traffic, but it’s still a lot of cases.”

However, thinking back a few moments more, he did note a tendency of estranged spouses to apply heat to each other’s clothing.

“Misdemeanors are interesting because, I mean, they really are the stuff of life,” Mikell said. “In the domestic area, we’ve had people put their spouse’s clothes in the oven. We’ve had people put their spouse’s clothes on the grill. So we’ve had baked clothes. We’ve had charred clothes. Those crazy things happen.”

He also recalled the defense offered by a man charged with possession of marijuana found under the gas cap of his vehicle. Acting as his own attorney, the defendant argued, “I keep my weed in a box. That weed was in a bag; therefore, that was not my weed,” Mikell recalled. “That was the most creative defense I’ve seen.”

 

Not his first career

After graduating from Statesboro High School, Mikell, a seventh-generation Bulloch Countian on his father’s side, attained a degree in journalism in 1976 from what was then Georgia Southern College. He wrote for the Southern Beacon, a weekly and then biweekly Statesboro newspaper, while in college, and after graduating worked as a reporter for the Savannah Morning News and Evening Press for about a year and a half.

Then he joined the U.S. Air Force, studied Korean at the Defense Language Institute in California, and served as a linguist and cryptographer in the Republic of Korea and at the National Security Agency.

For his second change of career, Mikell went to Mercer University’s School of Law in Macon, graduating with honors in 1985. Then he served for two years as a law clerk for Justice Hardy Gregory Jr. on the Supreme Court of Georgia.

Gregory has been “a great mentor” and the greatest single influence on Mikell in his career, he said.

“He used to say that the law is not that difficult; it’s life that’s complicated,” Mikell said.

After clerking for Gregory, Mikell returned to Statesboro and entered private practice. He also served the Georgia attorney general’s office as a special assistant attorney general, representing the state on legal matters in Bulloch and neighboring counties.

In 1996, when Judge John R. “Robbie” Turner, who was then State Court judge, ran for a Superior Court judgeship, then-Solicitor General F. Gates Peed, qualified to be the State Court judge. Mikell, in turn, successfully offered as solicitor general, essentially the State Court prosecutor.

When Judge Faye Sanders Martin retired from the Superior Court in 2000, Peed took her spot on the Superior Court bench, and Mikell became State Court judge.

 

First to be full-time

Established in 1903, the Bulloch County State Court had a part-time judge and part-time solicitor until Jan. 1, 1999, when the solicitor’s job was made full-time by action of the state Legislature. The judge’s job was made full-time Jan. 1, 2001. So Mikell became, in turn, the court’s first full-time solicitor and first full-time judge.

He is married to Kim Mikell, a registered nurse. They have two sons, Robert “Bob” Mikell, who is executive vice president and senior attorney for AgSouth ACA and current Statesboro-Bulloch Chamber of Commerce chair, and Dr. Scott Mikell, a physician with Statesboro Family Practice. Bob’s wife, Kelley Mikell, is an elementary school teacher, and Scott’s wife, Dr. Chelsea Mikell, is also a physician in Statesboro.

The judge has three granddaughters: Claire, Abigail and Helen.

A 1990 graduate of Leadership Bulloch, Judge Mikell is a member and past lay leader of Pittman Park United Methodist Church and a member and past president of both the Bulloch County Bar Association and the Kiwanis Club of Statesboro. He was named Kiwanian of the Year in 2008.

No, he does not intend to hang out his shingle as a private-practice attorney again.

“The question I keep getting asked is, ‘Well, what are you going to do?’ But I love living in Statesboro, and you know, the Kiwanis Club is here, Pittman Park Church is here, my four grandchildren are here, Georgia Southern athletics, which I’m a season ticketholder, and which I love, is here,” Mikell said. “So I was thinking, if I were to retire somewhere else, the place I would want to come to would be Statesboro.”

Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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