The six attorneys – Tunde Akinyele, Gina Bernard, Roderick Bridges, Kirby Clements, Latisha Dear-Jackson, and Nicholas Smith – seeking the open seat on the DeKalb Superior Court bench come with a range of experience.
Five are former prosecutors who have served as municipal and-or traffic court judges. One is a civil litigator. Two are immigrants, and all have a passion for improving the courts so they serve citizens better.
One will succeed Judge Daniel Coursey Jr., who is retiring in December after 36 years on the bench.
Akinyele, who is both a judge and a defense attorney, is chief judge in the city of Lithonia. He is a former 13-year DeKalb prosecutor with stints in the DeKalb Solicitor’s Office and the DeKalb District Attorney’s Office. He was a senior assistant district attorney when he left the D.A.’s office in 2013 to go into private practice.
He prosecuted more than 10,000 cases.
Akinyele was born in Nigeria; he came to the United States when he was 16 to attend college. That was 35 years ago.
Bernard, a 25-year DeKalb resident, is a former prosecutor and public defender for Atlanta Municipal Court, DeKalb Solicitor-General’s Office and Fulton County Superior Court. As a private attorney, she represented clients in Immigration Court, handled family law, personal injury and criminal law matters. For the past six years, she has been a public defender in the Stone Mountain Conflict Defender’s Office. She grew up in Trinidad.
Bridges, a DeKalb traffic court judge for more than 13 years, has lived in DeKalb for 25 years. He has a personal injury, criminal and family law practice in Decatur, and is the co-founder of the nonprofit Positive Peering that mentors at-risk youth.
Clements, a former prosecutor, consumer law practitioner and legal analyst, has prosecuted cases in Brooklyn, N.Y., Washington, D.C., and in the DeKalb Solicitors and Fulton County District Attorney’s Office. He is in private practice in Atlanta.
Dear-Jackson, an 11-year municipal court judge, prosecutor and civil litigator, is a former U.S. Court of Appeals attorney and civil lawyer.
She sits Pro Hac Vice in the Municipal Court of East Point and by designation in the State Courts of DeKalb County, and has previously sat by designation in DeKalb Superior Court. She is a native of DeKalb County, and has extensive community service with organizations serving youth.
Smith, a DeKalb native who has lived almost his entire life in the county, is a civil litigator and former staff attorney for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, where he handled criminal and civil matters.
Smith is currently a partner at Buckley Beal where his law practice focuses on business litigation. As a litigator, Smith has represented both plaintiffs and defendants. His clients have ranged from individuals to small businesses to Fortune 500 companies.
Early voting is underway through May 18. The polls are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on election day.
Speaking at the May 7 CrossRoadsNews candidates forum at First Afrikan Church in Lithonia, Smith, Dear-Jackson, Clements and Akinyele said they want to modernize and improve DeKalb’s court system.
Smith said he is frustrated with where DeKalb Superior Court is.
“Our county has grown significantly over the last 20 years and judges are continually doing things like it used to be done and that’s not going to cut it,” he said.
Dear-Jackson said DeKalb courts need modernizing.
“I want to use technology for all noncriminal cases and implement case management orders for all cases so each and every person that comes before court knows when they’re coming to court,” she said.
Smith said judges in other counties and districts are being more creative and proactive in dealing with cases, and that he knows attorneys who refuse to practice in DeKalb “because it’s too unpredictable and disorganized.”
“We’re losing access to justice,” Smith said. “When people and businesses start learning that they’re not going to get a fair shake in DeKalb, that they can’t afford to be sued here, they may start leaving as well, and that should be a concern.”
Clements said he wants to improve public confidence in the local legal system.
“People just want to know they’re treated fairly, even if they don’t win,” he said. “There’s a growing sentiment that the law doesn’t respect people so people are losing respect for the law and I want to restore that.”
Akinyele, who said he has a reputation as a “cool, calm dude,” wants to see more alternative sentencing implemented.
“There are a lot of cases that do not merit prison or jail time, or even a sentence,” he said.
Smith, Dear-Jackson and Clements also support alternative sentencing such as diversion and probation.
“It’s a no-brainer,” said Smith. “We need to ensure people are productive citizens of society and they’re not going to be able to do that by staying in jail or paying a fine that’s greater than their rent. We’ve to be very mindful of how punishment affects people’s lives and identify the difference between violent offenders and people who have just started down that track.”
Clement said youth especially needed to be given choices.
“Sometimes you have to give people the keys to success and as judges we can go to those young people and show them there’s an alternative way,” he said.
Bernard, who was absent from the May 7 forum, said she wants to see more funding for courts specifically designed to help drug addicts, veterans and others with mental health issues, “so that there are a wide range of treatment options.”
The daughter of a judge, Bernard said he taught her to be courteous, respectful of other’s views, open-minded and compassionate, and that, if elected, she would speed up case handling by implementing deadlines at arraignment, the first court date after indictment.
“Currently in DeKalb criminal cases can take years to travel through the system from arrest to disposition,” said Bernard. “I will also implement the same type of program on the civil side, because justice delayed is justice denied.”
Bridges, who was also absent from the May 7 forum, said he has utilized alternative sentencing such as pre-trial intervention and diversion as a county judge, and would continue to do so if elected to the Superior Court.
“These programs are essential tools that give low-risk defendants a second chance to be productive citizens and save the taxpayers money,” he said May 10.
With a growing number of people in the community dealing with mental health, substance abuse, unemployment, financial difficulty and a lack of direction, Bridges said local courts are experiencing higher caseloads as a result.
“I am confident I can effectively and efficiently address the many demands of the court, and I will utilize my legal and public health background to address the many societal issues the court will see on a daily basis,” he said.