Hanson swapping suit for robe as new judgeship beckons

awomack@macon.comJuly 29, 2013 

As a young attorney working at Macon’s Sell & Melton law firm, Jeffrey Hanson wrote in his journal that he wanted to plant a tree to symbolize his career.

Having grown up on Georgia’s coast amid stately oaks draped with moss, Hanson recognized that being a young lawyer working alongside accomplished attorneys was akin to being a sapling in a grove of mature trees.

He views an oak tree as a symbol of integrity. “There’s no shortcut to get to where they are,” the 47-year-old said.

He viewed his mentors as “live oak tree lawyers.”

“That’s what I aspired to be,” Hanson said.

A painting of a live oak that has decorated his office for years will be among the personal belongings he’ll take this week as he moves into a new space at the Bibb County Courthouse.

Appointed by Gov. Nathan Deal this month, Hanson is scheduled to be sworn in Wednesday to a new judgeship created to help manage Bibb County’s growing State Court caseload.

Hanson will move into the chambers most recently used by longtime Judge J. Taylor Phillips.

He said he’s excited about this new chapter in his life.

Working as managing partner at Sell & Melton, he viewed his work as that of a private servant, working for the good of his clients and the firm’s lawyers and staff.

“This is an opportunity to move from being a private servant to a public servant,” Hanson said. “I think that will be rewarding.”

Hanson was born the son of a Methodist minister in Brunswick. He attended elementary school across the road from the beach while his father managed the church’s Epworth by the Sea conference center on St. Simons Island.

The family moved to Warner Robins after his dad was transferred to Christ United Methodist Church on Russell Parkway.

Hanson graduated from Warner Robins High and got a psychology degree at Georgia Southern University.

He planned to go to graduate school, but he took the law school admission test just to see if he had an aptitude for law. He hadn’t grown up with any special hankering to become a lawyer, but he figured having a law degree would lend an extra level of credibility to whatever profession he ultimately chose.

“I thought I’d practice it for about three years and see if it was a good fit for me.”

‘Inquiring of mind’

He started work as a law clerk at Sell & Melton after his second year of law school, and the firm hired him after graduation.

Representing government entities, businesses and individuals, he found that he enjoyed practicing law.

Mitchel House, one of the firm’s founding partners, said he remembers Hanson in his early days as being “inquiring of mind.”

Working together on many cases, he’s watched Hanson mature in the firm.

“He’s had an outstanding career,” House said. “He has a work ethic to the absolute extreme, but he knows how to combine work and time for his family.”

Outside of work, Hanson likes spending time with his family and sharing his favorite sports -- golf and tennis -- with his sons, ages 13 and 16. He’s also active at Martha Bowman United Methodist Church, where he is a Sunday worship leader and works with a small group of seventh- and eighth-grade boys on Wednesdays.

Asked why he pursued the judgeship after rising to managing partner at his firm, Hanson said he’s often thought it would be interesting work to be a judge.

As a lawyer, he’s represented both plaintiffs and defendants and usually approaches a case by examining both sides of an issue, trying to “figure out how to get a resolution,” much like a judge, he said.

Hanson said he looks forward to hearing interesting civil cases, but also to having an opportunity to help set people on the right path when they’ve gone astray of the law.

As a State Court judge, he will preside over misdemeanor criminal cases that carry lighter penalties -- jail terms of a year or less -- than more serious felony cases heard in Superior Court.

“Hopefully, you get the chance to see some people at that point in the process and go, all right, this person has made the first step down the wrong path,” Hanson said. “Can I do something with them that keeps them from taking the next step?”

Sitting State Court Judge William P. Adams said he looks forward to having Hanson start work signing warrants, issuing court orders and presiding over cases.

A 2012 workload assessment by the Council of State Court Judges showed that Bibb County had enough work for 2.22 full-time judges.

After Judge J. Taylor Phillips’ death last year, Adams told county commissioners he needed a second full-time judge. Phillips had been handling cases part time.

State legislators created the new judgeship this year.

“We’re excited to have a second judge finally here to help us to more efficiently deal with the very heavy volume of criminal and civil cases we handle,” Adams said.

To contact writer Amy Leigh Womack, call 744-4398.

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