Chief Judge Martha Christian still remembers how it felt when she put on a black judge’s robe for the first time.
Appointed to the Macon Judicial Circuit in 1994 by then-Gov. Zell Miller, Christian became the circuit’s first female Superior Court judge. Thirteen years later, she became the circuit’s first female chief judge.
When she retires at the end of the year at age 61, she will have left her mark not just on the defendants whose cases she presided over, but on lawyers and other judges as well.
While issuing rulings in cases ranging from child custody to murders, she gained respect and a reputation for being prepared, organized and taking detailed notes.
Some criminal defendants came to call her “Maximum Martha” or “Crushin’ Christian.”
Days before her retirement, she smiled when asked about the monikers.
“I think there are people who deserve to see Maximum Martha and Crushin’ Christian,” she said.
She also was known as a judge who issued timely, well-thought-out rulings.
Christian said she relied in part on advice she received from C. Cloud Morgan, a judge in the circuit from 1966 to 1990.
He said, “You have to give it due deliberation and think about it and give it time,” Christian recalled. But after making a ruling, Morgan also advised her to move on and not become fixated on it.
In response, Christian said she looks at every defendant she sentences as “an individual human being.”
Retired Judge Tommy Day Wilcox described Christian as “a quick study” in her early days on the bench.
She was a “true professional” who could be compassionate but also dish out tough sentences when warranted, he said.
Retired Judge Lamar Sizemore said he remembers when Christian, a recent law school graduate, joined the law firm where he also worked.
The two lawyers built a friendship that continued when they both served as judges in the circuit, which covers Bibb, Crawford and Peach counties. Sizemore retired in 2010.
Sizemore described Christian as “extremely smart, prepared, organized, hard-working, disciplined and ethical.”
She worked long hours outside the courtroom researching the law and saw the need for cases to move through the system so “justice isn’t delayed or denied,” he said.
Christian didn’t let the weight of the issues she handled paralyze her -- a problem for some judges -- but was thoughtful and caring in her rulings while considering the effects on other people, Sizemore said.
District Attorney Greg Winters said practicing before Christian helped shape him as a prosecutor.
“The thing you knew was to be prepared and be ready when she walked into a courtroom,” he said. “She knew the law and she knew as much about the facts (of the case) as she could at the time.
“She expected you to be prepared.”
That preparation, in turn, helps jurors find confidence in a prosecutor’s argument, he said.
Since being elected to the bench last year, former District Attorney Howard Simms has gone to Christian for advice several times as he’s presided over domestic cases.
“She’s been invaluable to me,” he said.
Judge Tripp Self described Christian as the judges’ “most valuable player” due to her ability to juggle a heavy caseload in the courtroom while also tending to administrative matters as chief judge.
“I don’t really believe the community understands what we’re about to lose. ... She has a unique ability (to juggle) legal knowledge, handle administrative issues and calendars and keep everybody else in line,” he said.
“She will be missed.”
Reflecting on a career
Growing up as a child of the 1950s and 1960s, Christian’s first job wasn’t in the legal field. She worked as a teacher and school counselor. It was a time when there weren’t many female lawyers or doctors.
“We weren’t encouraged to do that,” she said.
But after finding that the educational field wasn’t for her, Christian attended Mercer University’s Walter F. George School of Law and was admitted to the Georgia Bar in 1980.
Even on the bench, she faced challenges because of her gender. As a new judge, there was one occasion when an older male lawyer hung up on her during a phone conversation.
Christian admits that some of the challenges were self-imposed, such as fighting an appearance as a strict schoolmarm brandishing a ruler.
“A woman judge has to watch that, fighting the perception,” she said. “I think there still is more expected.”
She likened putting on a judge’s robe to using a megaphone. The robe carries with it the voice of authority and a lot of discretion.
“We literally have people’s lives in our hands,” she said.
After packing up her office earlier this month, Christian said she became nostalgic as she sifted through photos and files.
“You don’t just put things in a box.”
Christian said she’ll miss watching two good lawyers practice their art and the busy excitement that comes with refereeing proceedings.
She fondly recalled drug court graduations and being greeted on the street by people whom she had given a second chance.
“You get so emotionally involved in their lives and how they are trying to turn their lives around,” she said.
She also remembers the darker times, such as presiding over the 2000 assault at the former Rio Bravo restaurant on Tom Hill Sr. Boulevard. Several customers were herded into a walk-in cooler and assaulted. Three women were raped.
“To watch those victims testify, knowing they would never be the same again, especially the young women raped in bathrooms and watching young men crying on the stand, ... I’ll never forget that,” she said.
When Christian leaves her office at the Bibb County Courthouse for the last time, it won’t mark an end to her career as a judge.
After moving to north Georgia with her husband, a federal prosecutor, she plans to continue working as a senior judge while pursing a retirement with activities including cooking courses, learning to play the hammered dulcimer and singing in a church choir.
She also wants to renew or develop friendships with other lawyers outside the courtroom, something she cut herself off from years ago to prevent the appearance of anything improper.
“I want to do human things again,“ she said.
Information from Telegraph archives was used in this report. To contact writer Amy Leigh Womack, call 744-4398.