Outgoing Chief Superior Court Judge Tripp Self learned early on that the job of being a judge wouldn’t be easy.
Making the right decision wasn’t always popular, but it was important to the young judge who took office in 2007 that he follow the law as best he could.
Now, 10 years later, his job is shifting to a court that will help clarify the law for lawyers and judges across the state.
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Ed Ennis, a colleague of Self’s in Macon, said Self is the first judge in several years to leave the Macon Judicial Circuit bench for another court.
The last judge to do so was Judge W. Louis Sands, who was a Superior Court judge before President Bill Clinton appointed him to the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Georgia in 1994.
“We’re all excited for Judge Self,” said Ennis, who will assume Self’s administrative duties as chief judge beginning Jan. 1. “I think he will make a great asset” to the Court of Appeals.
Time on the bench
Growing up, Self spent many afternoons at the Bibb County Courthouse watching his grandfather, then-Probate Judge Tillman E. Self, in court.
Years later, after he graduated from The Citadel and served four years in the Army, Self graduated from the University of Georgia with a law degree.
He started his law career in Macon at the Sell & Melton firm, where he handled a variety of cases, including those related to civil rights, probate issues and civil litigation while also defending poor criminal defendants.
Elected to fill an open judgeship created by Judge Tommy Day Wilcox’s retirement, Self got an early view of the cruelty that exists in the world.
On the bench for about a week, he presided at a hearing in which a woman was seeking a temporary restraining order after a man had doused her back with drain cleaner and other chemicals, leaving her marked for life with a stripe down her back.
“I never thought people were that mean,” Self said. “I thought, Lord help us.”
A few months later, he presided over a legal battle involving whether a lesbian woman could adopt a then-7-year-old girl. The case was years before same-sex marriages were legalized and at a time when homosexuality carried more public stigma.
Self awarded the woman custody after considering the evidence — that the prospective adoptive mother had taught the child to read and removed her from a situation where she was living in the back of an 18-wheeler.
The case drew a lot of attention, and Self said he caught “a lot of flak” about his decision.
What I hope that demonstrated was that I was willing to follow the law, even when it was unpopular.
Judge Tripp Self said of his ruling
“What I hope that demonstrated was that I was willing to follow the law, even when it was unpopular.”
In the years that followed, Self presided over the death penalty case for the men who fatally shot Bibb County deputy Joseph Whitehead during a 2006 “no knock” raid. After years of pretrial hearings, the men accepted plea bargains, avoiding trial and possible death sentences.
A question arose during pretrial hearings of whether Antron Fair and Damon Jolly knew that Whitehead was a lawman and whether that knowledge should affect jurors’ deciding whether to sentence them to death.
“Nobody had ever answered this question before,” Self said.
In the end, Self ruled that the men’s knowledge didn’t matter, and the state Supreme Court found that decision to be constitutional.
As a result, if a person in Georgia kills an undercover officer — even without knowing it was an officer — the person can be sentenced to death.
Self also presided over proceedings in the 2012 slaying of Macon legal secretary Gail Spencer. Spencer was killed in her home as part of an $1.4 million embezzlement scheme to steal from the law firm where she worked.
Three defendants pleaded guilty, but the fourth, Keith Anthony Dozier, stood trial in 2015.
On the day Self sentenced Dozier to life in prison without parole, he said it was the worst day he’d ever had as a judge — having to listen to what was done to Spencer and how she struggled. It was difficult emotionally, he said. Spencer was about his mother’s age and lived alone, just like his mother did.
That was just awful for me. ... I could connect to it.
Judge Tripp Self, speaking of the Gail Spencer murder case
“That was just awful for me,” Self said. “I could connect to it.”
People should remember that while judges need to be able to put emotion aside, “We don’t need emotionless judges,” he said. “We don’t need robots.”
Of everything he’s accomplished as a judge, Self said he’s most proud of his work to start additional accountability courts, programs that provide treatment options for offenders instead of just punishment.
“It’s a great program,” he said. “It’s the best thing I do. I will remember that as much as anything.”
Serving in Atlanta
Known for his hunting and the taxidermy displayed in his chambers, Self also has been known for his signature bow ties.
About the only time he wears a necktie is when the Georgia Bulldogs lose a football game to the Florida Gators. Self — a big Bulldogs fan — has an ongoing bet with a prosecutor, a Gators fan. Self wears a Gators necktie that plays the Florida fight song when Georgia loses. The prosecutor, in turn, wears a Bulldogs bow tie when Florida loses.
Taking the bench in his new job, Self will join his friend and fellow Maconite Stephen Dillard, who was appointed to the Court of Appeals in 2010 and later re-elected to the post.
Dillard and Self started their careers in Macon about a year apart in the 1990s, both working in the Fickling building downtown. Dillard worked on the 11th floor at Stone & Baxter, while Self was on the 14th floor at Sell & Melton.
“We spent a good deal of time in each other’s offices talking about the law and our futures,” Dillard said. “We both felt a call to public service and a desire to eventually serve in the judicial branch.”
Dillard, the Court of Appeals’ vice chief and a presiding judge, is set to be sworn in next summer for a two-year term as the court’s chief judge.
Self must run for election statewide in 2018 to keep his seat. Dillard and several other judges on the court also are set to run for re-election in 2018.