A Touchstone of Truth

By Brad McEwen

Although some of my past behavior might have warranted it (maybe back in my late teens and early 20s), I’ve been fortunate that I’ve never run afoul of area law enforcement or had to navigate my way through the local judicial system.

As a journalist and a person who dutifully reports every time I find a jury summons in my mailbox, I am familiar, however, with the inside of a courthouse. But I’m proud to say my experiences there (aside from covering a few violent crime cases) have been mostly positive.

Quite frankly I think that’s because we’ve got some impressive people serving our justice system, chief among them the judges who see to it that said system runs as it was designed—which I’ve come to find out is no small task.

That said, one of the best experiences I’ve had in a judicial building, occurred just a few days ago, when I had the pleasure of spending some time with Dougherty County State Court Judge Victoria Darrisaw.

While nearly every judge I’ve had the opportunity to chat with has been professional, and usually very insightful, there was just something special about Judge Darrisaw.

In the parlance of my mother, I have to say, “She’s a delightful woman.”

I could attempt drive my observation home with any number of glowing adjectives—things like, forthright, integrous, cheerful, funny, etc.—but I’d likely run out of superlatives. I think just simply sharing a few things I learned about her should suffice.

One of the things I discovered about Judge Darrisaw is that she really values her time. She told me repeatedly that efficiency is of the utmost importance and she prides herself on running a tight ship—stressing that one of the most important parts of her job is structuring her trial calendar in a way that keeps the judicial process moving so that defendants get their day in court in a timely manner.

“I like to move cases,” she said. “I like to look at the numbers and see, ‘Okay, this is how we’re going to do this; this is how we’re going to move this forward.’

“I try not to be too pushy. I try to nudge the parties to a conclusion without being too pushy. If a case has been around for a while, I say, ‘Is there anything the court can do to move this case forward?’ ‘Do we want a trial to turn into a dispute resolution?’ ‘Do we want to mediate this?’ Whatever. I try to move them.

“I don’t like them to be old. In fact the oldest case that I have right now is a 2014 case. Sometimes cases are not old because the lawyers are not working; it’s that sometimes, if there’s things like a bankruptcy, then I have to wait. Sometimes if there’s a delay it’s beyond our control. That’s a little bit more palatable to me. Otherwise I like to keep things moving.”

Despite the emphasis she places on time, I’m pleased to report that at no point during our interview did she ever give me the impression I was wasting hers or that she had something more pressing to do.

It was clear that she had committed to meeting with me and she was going to see that through, even though by the time we wrapped up, her office staff had cleared out and the courthouse was shut down for the day.

To me that was indicative of another impressive quality about the state court judge who was recently appointed by Governor Nathan Deal to take the seat being vacated by Dougherty County Superior Court Judge Stephen Goss, who has been appointed to the state appellate court. Judge Darrisaw honors commitments and sees them through.

Perhaps more striking than the judge clearing plenty of time to meet with me, though, was her open demeanor and the frank and honest way she spoke to me. While I always keep my interviews conversational, I certainly have to ask some prepared questions and regardless of what I asked her, or where the conversation took us, she always gave me a candid and thoughtful answer.

Such was the case when discussing the philosophies that have always guided one of the more difficult (and often scrutinized) tasks associated with her role as a judge—working toward to reasonable outcome for the parties involved in a case.

“I see people all the time and they’re just like, ‘Ugh, lock everybody up,’” the judge shared. “And they are always very tough. They come down very tough on the crowd, except when it’s their son, their daughter, their cousin, the nephew. Because then they say, ‘I know they had a good upbringing and they deserve an opportunity.’

“But the problem with that thinking is, everybody is somebody’s son. Everybody is somebody’s daughter. So it can’t be the relationship that makes the difference. It has to be, what did the person do and what do you have the potential to do about it?

“Someday the people who get locked up are going to get out and when they get out, what are they going to do? If they don’t have prospects, then they go back to the only thing that they can do, which is crime, which is no good for anybody.

“It may be that a person has done a thing, but justice may require that they get a lighter sentence than what the charge might suggest. You look at the totality of the circumstances. I’ve always been that type of person. You know, if you deserve a break, I’ll give it. I would recommend it. But if you don’t deserve it, I won’t.”

That need to examine each circumstance to ensure justice is served, is something Judge Darrisaw said is no different from when she was a prosecutor having to decide what charges to bring against an individual accused of a crime. As far as she is concerned that’s a lot of responsibility to wield over someone’s life and she took that charge seriously.

“There are a lot of moving pieces that are working behind the scenes and you see the impact that these lawyers or people can have on others’ lives,” she explained. “That is interesting because there are good and bad people in every profession, but it is a calling, I believe. But it’s better when you have upright people in the position to make the call when to charge or not. And then, ‘If I charge, what do I charge?’ ‘How do I approach this?’ And then depending upon what I charge, ‘What recommendation do I make?’

“Now there are some in the prosecution business, fortunately it’s not many, but there are some, who only see numbers. You know, ‘My win rate is 90 percent; my conviction rate is this and that.’ Sometimes they lose sight of the people, the lives they impact. It’s about more than just winning and losing.

“So I think that’s what made me get into prosecution. I wanted to make sure that at least somebody actually thought about that. Not that there aren’t many, there are. I’m not saying I’m the only one. But that’s what attracted me to that. I wanted to make sure somebody was there that would look at the whole situation.

“Like, ‘this person has gotten away with something maybe a time or two more than they should have, but do we need to lock them up?’ ‘Do we need to get them an education?’

“I do believe in locking up now; don’t get me wrong on that,” she continued. “I tell you what I expect of you and if you don’t live up to these expectations, there’s going to be a consequence. But I do think if people had options—if you had a better job, if you had an opportunity to get a better job—the outcome might be different.

“So if we say, ‘Okay we’ve seen you here for these minor offenses, let’s make sure you get your GED, that’s going to be a requirement’—maybe that’s going to be the incentive needed, that kick in the pants. And if you do it, then you’re able to qualify for this job or you’re able to do something a little better and it could have the potential to shift the track that you’re on and that’s what is exciting. That’s an exciting possibility.

“It is an awesome responsibility to have an opportunity to impact lives, but at the same time you’ve got to hold people accountable. If you make bad decisions you have basically said, ‘Look, I’m going to put my life in somebody else’s hands because apparently I don’t know what to do with it.’

“Hopefully we can get them to make better decisions.”

While it is clear that Judge Darrisaw feels an incredible responsibility as an attorney and judge, she said it isn’t necessarily complicated for her to figure out how to proceed. Obviously it takes time and she has to study each situation carefully, see all sides and carefully think things through to apply the law correctly, but she said she does a have sort of an internal barometer that guides her.

“The truth is my touchstone,” she said. “I like justice. I think I’m fair, you know, but of course that’s a personal opinion. But I like the fact that I can hear a situation without regard for who’s telling it.

“The thing is, I think the truth sounds different than a lie. So when you hear the truth you can call it as you see it. As a judge, I’m supposed play no favorites and grind no axes. I don’t have any axes to grind and I don’t have any favorites.

“I sleep very well at night, most nights anyway. I do the best that I can with the situation that’s presented and I keep it moving. I don’t dwell on it.”

Judge Darrisaw added that part of her ability to see a situation as it is, and react accordingly, comes from operating under simple guidelines that she tries to employ in every facet of her life.

“As a judge I get to be neutral,” she said. “In other words, I get to be like my grandmother, which is my standard for everybody. I treat everybody like I would want my cousin to be treated, or someone that I appreciate and love. I try to treat everybody like that.

“So, if you’ve done a thing, then I’m going to say, ‘Hey, if I would lock my own mother up…’ then I would, you know. If my mother does the shoplifting, she’s got to go to jail. She would never do that, but if she did, that would be the sentence. And I would have no problem doing that.

“I treat everybody the way I would treat my family.”

As I learned more about Judge Darrisaw and her background I was not surprised by her attitude toward law and about the notions of truth and justice in general.

The child of two retired Marines, Judge Darrisaw told me she grew up in a family that valued education and demanded accountability. She said her parents set and enforced certain expectations for her and her younger siblings, and that they were taught to recognize those expectations and act accordingly.

“They weren’t necessarily strict, but they were disciplinarians,” she said of her folks. “And I think people tend to live up to the expectations set for them.”

That notion was also enforced by her grandmother, whose presence had a powerful impact on the judge’s life and how she views her current role. To illustrate the lessons taught by her grandmother, Judge Darrisaw told me a story about a time when she and her siblings made the mistake of disobeying her.

“My grandmother was a very quiet woman,” Judge Darrisaw said. “Never in my lifetime, do I recall her raising her voice. In fact, when she got upset, she would whisper. And that’s the most frightening, when she’d start whispering. You’re thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, what’s going to happen?’

“The one story I remember about my grandmother and how that had an impact on me and on how I viewed things is this: we lived in a house on the hill and my grandmother lived at the bottom of the hill. When my mom first got divorced she worked at a mill, which required her to work like 11 p.m. until 7 a.m., shift work, until she got her education and was able to get into teaching.

“So we couldn’t stay home alone so we would stay at my grandmother’s house overnight. So sometimes on Friday nights that would happen so on Saturday she would get off and we could walk back home—it was just up the street, you know, just a block.

“Well I was probably seven or eight—I’m five years older than my sister and six years older than my brother, so they would have been like three and two but still able to walk—and my grandmother said, ‘Listen, if your mother isn’t home, come back.’ I said, ‘Yes ma’am.’ So we walk up the street and it just so happens that someone had put out a whole bunch of wood and we were going to build a fort. Well we go home and my mother was not at home, her car’s not in the driveway, but instead of going back to my grandmother’s we build the fort in the front yard with this wood somebody had thrown away.

“Well I think one of my uncles passed by—this is like a village you know—he had gone to the store and he mentioned about us playing in the yard,” she continued. “So my grandmother leaves the house and she came up the street. She didn’t yell. She said, ‘Come on, let’s go.’ And I think we’re in trouble and I started saying, ‘but we…’ And she’s like, ‘That’s alright don’t worry about it.’

“So we go back to the house and there I got the worst spanking of my life. That’s the only one she ever gave me. And she didn’t just get me because I’m older, you know. Most people would just get the oldest, but she got my brother and my sister.

“They said, ‘But Vicki…’ you know. But she said, ‘But I told ALL of you if your mother’s not at home to come back.” So she didn’t accept an excuse from the oldest to the youngest. We ALL got the same instruction.

“So that’s how I view things,” the judge stressed. “I like to tell you what I expect from you. I say, ‘Now I’m going to give you 30 days to get clean, but if you smoke marijuana now, if you refuse to provide a test, if you test dirty, then that’s going to be 30 days in jail.’ I tell you what the consequences are up front and if you violate, well there’s no complaining because you’ve put me in a corner. I have to be a woman of my word. I’ve told you what the consequence is going to be and I don’t have any problem going along with that.

“They always try to tell me, I’ve heard so many things, ‘Well my mother needs me at home,’ or ‘I have a job.’ Well you know what, I told them up front I’m not going to be able to hear all of that. And I got that from my grandmother, because she didn’t accept excuses and she doesn’t have to yell. That’s the thing.”

It was with those lessons instilled in her that Judge Darrisaw eventually took the path that lead from her childhood—growing up in Newnan, then Atlanta—to college at Spellman and ultimately law school at Mercer University and a career as an attorney.

“I’ve always known,” she said about her decision to practice law. “I was either going to be one of two things and I was trying to figure out how to do both. I was either going to be a math teacher—and that was because I had a great math teacher in high school and I wanted to do everything that she did—or I wanted to be a lawyer—you know from watching Perry Mason and Matlock, that kind of thing. I thought, ‘Yeah I want to do that because they seem to be the smartest people in the room.’

“Well they seem to be. They seem like they’ve got it together and I wanted to be that person.

“Then I got to higher level mathematics and I realized that wasn’t going to work out for me, so ‘let me just shift my thinking on that.’ I ended up being a poly sci major.”

Although TV lawyers had an early impression on her, Judge Darrisaw told me she ultimately got into law, and stayed, because she loved the challenge and the variety of the work.

“I liked the challenge of it,” she said. “The thing about the law is, sometimes it’s routine—there’s an element of that—but every case is different, every situation is different. Even if they’re similar, there are differences. You’re never bored, I don’t think, because there’s always some new wrinkle that is out there. And so it’s a constant challenge and you don’t have the chance to get bored.

“I can see myself getting bored easily if I had to do the same thing over and over again. But every person is different. Every situation is different and so that’s a challenge. There is guidance, you know. You have precedent. But it’s not often that every case is going to be ‘on all fours’ with every other case. Usually there’s going to be something that’s slightly off and so you’ve got to figure it out. ‘Where do we go from there?’ ‘How do we get from this point to the next point?’ That’s kind of an exciting thing to be a part of.’”

Of course before she could take on the challenges of practicing law, Judge Darrisaw had to earn her law degree and find employment—something she said presented its own set difficulties.

“On the eve of graduation, I was looking for a job and was getting those rejection letters,” she said. “I was like, ‘Oh my God! I’m going to have to work at McDonald’s.’ But if it took McDonald’s, that’s where I was going to be working.

“But I applied for a clerkship in Bibb County and it was not like you send in your resume, you know. I did that, sending in resumes. This was, you have to come downtown to the office and fill out an application and then you attach a resume. So I did that and I had an interview and that’s where I met Judge Sands [Senior U.S. District Judge W. Louis Sands].

“We sat down, had an interview and I got the job. I stayed in Macon after graduation and then Judge Sands was appointed to the Superior Court in Bibb County. Then after that he was appointed by President Clinton as a federal judge for the middle district of Georgia and I was his first law clerk.”

By the time that clerkship ended, Judge Darrisaw, had met and married her husband, George Edward Darrisaw Jr., who had taken a job teaching music in Albany, and she began working a job as a prosecutor in the South Georgia Circuit—a move that helped the family make its way to Albany.

“We moved to Camila because I was going to have to go to work in Bainbridge and he was working up here and Camila was the halfway point,” she said. “We did that for a few years and then in 2000 (then Dougherty County District Attorney) Ken (Hodges) had an opening in the DA’s office up here and that presented an opportunity for us to live and work in the same city. So we did. We came here and have been here ever since.”

Although it was work that ultimately brought her to Albany, Judge Darrisaw said she now feels incredibly connected to the community she’s proud to call home.

“Albany is home,” she said with a smile. “Both of our children were born here. I breathe better when I hit the Dougherty County line.”

Of course as she did throughout our interview, Judge Darrisaw was also quite frank about her feelings for Albany, saying that she tries to work hard to make sure this community lives up to its potential, despite some of the issues that sometimes hinder it.

“I think my role is to be a good citizen, to try to make it a better place to be,” she said. “You should be able to walk in your neighborhood without fear or concern. I want it to be a good neighborhood. And I want it to live up to its potential.

“There is so much here, so many natural resources. When I go other places and I tell people about the resources we have here, I think, ‘this should be a mecca for people to come to.’”

In order for the community to become what it can ultimately be, however, Judge Darrisaw said there needs to be a change of mindset among many of the residents—a transformation she’s already seeing.

“We’ve got to get out of our own way,” she said. “Until you recognize that you have value, then no one else will see your value. But I think we’re starting to see that. There are so many positive things happening right now that I wish we could expand on. It’s getting there though. It’s a process. I can see it happening.

“People say, ‘I won’t ever come back home,’ and that’s sad to me because Albany is a great place. I just think we have to change our paradigm, change how we view Albany. And I think that’s beginning to happen. But my role is just to be a good citizen and I think be a part of that change.

“Change is a part of life and I try to embrace it and maybe direct it a little bit to make it more palatable, maybe. And be open to the change that is coming.”

As one who shares Judge Darrisaw’s belief that there are some wonderful things happening in this community, which I believe point toward a better tomorrow for the Albany area, I left my meeting with the judge, feeling that regardless of the issues we’re facing, our future looks bright because of people like Victoria Darrisaw.

Connect with Brad – 229.405.7212 - brad.mcewen@abtgold.com - @BradGMcEwen 

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