Beginning the practice of law on June 6, 1980, Howell will step down from the bench Feb. 1 after more than 24 years as a judge.
“... A superior court judge can retire and start drawing retirement at age 60, and I will be 60 by the time of my effective date of retirement. So that eligibility is, of course, obviously a major factor,” Howell said. “Also, by the time I retire, I will have been doing this for 24 years and that’s a pretty long time. That’s longer than the average service on the bench.
“... I got started early. I was 36 when I took the bench, which is much younger than average.”
Currently accepting applications, the Judicial Nominating Commission will send a “short list” to Gov. Nathan Deal in January for his appointment. Howell said the next superior court judge will be in place around the time of his departure.
The newly appointed judge will complete the two years remaining on Howell’s term before the next election.
Howell, however, will take the opportunity to relax and enjoy hobbies and family.
“I do want to relax more, have more days off, spend more time with my grandchildren and other family. But I’ve got outside interests, outdoor activities and gardening and such and just want to do some of that while I’m still able to,” he said.
But retirement doesn’t necessarily mean an end to Howell’s time in the robe.
“Right now there is a pretty high demand for senior judge service ... If you’ve been a judge for a certain number of years, you are eligible to be appointed as a senior judge. You can serve anywhere within the state on a request basis for jurisdictions that need assistance for one reason or another,” he said. “... I’m hoping there’s a good chance I can stay fairly active on a part-time basis.”
Name: Shepherd Howell
Occupation: Cherokee Judicial Circuit Superior Court judge
City of Residence: Cartersville
Family: Sarah, taught school at Cass High School; a daughter and a son; and two grandchildren
Education: West Georgia College with a B.S. in Political Science; Cumberland Law School on Samford University with juris doctorate in 1979
How did you get into law and become a judge?
A: Well, I just had an interest in law. It’s difficult to say how ... I was just attracted to law and went to college with the direction of going into law school. Now, how I got to be a judge is a little bit of a different story. I never aspired to be a judge when I was going through law school and such. But they created a new judgeship for this circuit to be effective in 1990. And, prior to 1990, there were only two superior court judges so they created a third judgeship. Everybody started talking about who was going to be the third judge, and I was just, I guess, presumptious enough to think I could do as good as any of the other people they were talking about and put my name in the ring and was appointed by Joe Frank Harris.
I started ... as a judge Jan. 17 of 1990.
What do you see as the biggest challenge facing the Cherokee Judicial Circuit?
A: Well just keeping us with all the cases, just handling the caseload is probably the biggest obstacle. When I started we had three superior court judges, now we added a fourth superior court judge because of the caseload in 2006 maybe. Yes, in 2006, we added a fourth superior court judge. And we are very close to qualifying for a fifth superior court judge.
Now there are agencies that keep track of the numbers and cases and statistics and stuff. Statistically, we are not quite there but we are very close to qualifying for a fifth judge.
In the 30-plus years you have practiced law, what is the biggest change you’ve seen in the judicial process?
A: Well, I’d have to say there are two major changes, one on the civil side and one on the criminal side.
On the civil side, the mediation programs have had a big impact on our civil court, which involves divorces and contract cases and tort cases and so forth. We actually require that a case be mediated before it comes to court for a final disposition by a judge or jury. The medication process has really helped dispose of a lot of cases and it’s been very effective, but that all came about after I started as a judge. I mean, really this mediation business started sometime in the ’90s. I can’t remember when we started requiring mediation. It was either in the late ’90s or early 2000s, somewhere in there, that we started requiring mediation routinely on all cases.
Now on the criminal side probably the biggest change that has come along is the public defender’s office where you have full-time state employees responsible for defending indigent defendants. That program has been successful, I would say. It does help dispose of most of these criminal cases quicker, move them through the process a lot quicker. Before you had a full-time public defender system, you had court-appointed lawyers, you know, that just represented defendants, indigent defendants on a part-time basis.
I came along during that system; I did court-appointed work myself. I did the best I could, but I think as a full-time public defender where you are just concentrating on representing criminal defendants you are able to give it more of your attention and, as I say, speed up the process on criminal defendants.
So those two things, on the civil side mediation and on the criminal side the public defender system, would be the two biggest changes.
You have been described as the most liberal of our superior court judges, do you think that is an appropriate assessment?
A: Well, I don’t know and I’m really not concerned with that type of label. I just make the decisions I deem appropriate and go on to the next case.
Is there a case in the 33 years you’ve practiced law that has impacted you the most?
A: Oh, wow. I can’t recall any singular case that’s affected me more than any others. Now, you know, on the civil side child custody cases are just oftentimes very difficult. Either you’ve got two parents that you’re not happy with either one and so it’s hard to decide custody, or you’ve got two parents that are both real good and it’s hard to decide. Child custody cases tend to be agonizing type cases. But I can’t recall one in particular that had a real overwhelming impact on me. Those would probably be among the most serious or effecting cases would be the child custody.
What makes Bartow County special?
A: I was born and raised here and so you know people, you know all the local history. That makes it special. And I’ve got three generations of family that has been here, so outside my own, that’s why it’s personally special to me — it’s home.
Now, you know, what would make it special outside my own personal experience is it still has some small-town qualities where people know each other and are amiable, and yet, you are close enough to the big city to enjoy the benefits of that, whatever benefits those may be.
What would people be surprised to learn about you?
A: What’s the time limit here on these questions? How long do I have to respond to that? I have a lot of outdoor interests. I hunt, fish. I hike a lot, camp. I garden. A lot of people already know that; some people don’t. Those that don’t might be surprised.
A: My favorite meal would be country-fried deer steaks with mashed potatoes.
If they made a movie about Judge Shep Howell’s life, who would play you?
A: ... I think his name is Edward Norton. ... I just remember him as a lawyer in that Larry Flynt movie and some other stuff. He conveys the appropriate demeanor.
What would be your dream job?
A: If not a judge, what would be my dream job? Well, if you’re just dreaming, it would be to be able to farm and garden and make a living at it. But, you know, ... I recognize the difficulties in making a living at such a thing, but that would be my dream job.