In Their Words – Judge Belinda E. Edwards (J.D. ’90)
Why did you pursue a career in law?
I wanted to make a positive difference in my community and in the lives of others.
As a child of the civil rights movement, raised in the segregated South, I experienced firsthand discrimination and the adverse effects of unequal justice. I realized early that it was the law that gave rights and took them away, established what you could or couldn’t do, and that even if the law was not discriminatory, the people applying it often are.
As a teenager, I was part of a group of black students that integrated Southwest High. The policy of Atlanta Public Schools at that time was that you could attend any school in the district. However, my initial request for Southwest was rejected, and I was assigned to Harper High, a black school. But Harper was on double session, and I wanted to go to school all day, not half a day. Thus, my mother went to the Board of Education to challenge the assignment as a violation of the policy. I and others were then reassigned to Southwest.
My parents were willing to work hard and sacrifice for my siblings and I. My mother made sure that each of us attended college and my father provided the financial support to bridge the gap between financial aid and the actual cost to attend college. They valued education because they recognized it was the key to opportunity, better paying jobs and careers that were unavailable to them.
Because of the example they set, it was ingrained in me that you speak out when you witness injustice regardless of the personal cost, that you stand up for others and treat everyone fairly even if they do not treat you that way. What better way to ensure equal and fair treatment for all than to be a lawyer and fight for the rights of others, and ultimately a judge, the decision-maker?
You have said that your grandmother was also an inspiration.
My grandmother, Mrs. Ruby L. Edwards, was affectionately known as Ms. NAACP for her work on behalf of the Civil Rights movement and the organization. As a child, I attended more voter registration drives and NAACP meetings with her than I can recall. She wanted me to learn firsthand the oppression black people faced and what hard work and commitment it took to change the status quo.
She said voting was necessary to bring about the change needed to improve the lives of disenfranchised people — it wasn’t going to happen just because we wanted it to. Someone had to do the hard work and heavy lifting, and that someone was us. On occasion, my grandmother had to leave town for her safety because of her activism, but she never stopped, no matter the personal cost. Some people take the right to vote for granted, but that right was won through the beatings and deaths of others, so I always vote.
My grandmother understood that without the opportunity to obtain an education, black people were destined to remain second-class citizens. She also emphasized that once you obtained an education, you had an obligation to try to make a difference in your community, because people died and fought for you to have that opportunity.
I know of no better way to honor my grandmother’s legacy than to become a lawyer and judge. I am a superior court judge because I obtained an education, I came back to my community and tried to make a difference through my work in public service, and people voted for me. All the things my grandmother worked and sacrificed for have benefited me and will benefit others. Voting, education and community service are the keys to making a great people and a great community.
Why is education so important?
Education is the door to opportunity and the great equalizer to some degree; it levels the playing field. It provides one with an opportunity to earn a living wage, establish a business and become aware of the vast opportunities that are theoretically available. Today, when manufacturing or factory jobs are far fewer than in years past, it is almost impossible to overcome poverty and provide a decent home and opportunities for one and one’s family without an education. At one point in Georgia almost 80 percent of the people in prison did not have a high school diploma or GED. Thus, the best way to stay out of prison is to get an education.
Why is being involved in the community important to you?
Community service is a way of saying thank you and showing that I care about where I live and what happens to the people that live there. We have a common bond and together each of us should work to make our community better. We should help those who are coming behind us and possibly less fortunate than we are, for as the saying goes, “There but for the grace of God go I.”
Tell us a little more about your experience at Georgia State Law.
I had great professors at Georgia State and I learned a great deal from them. I was fortunate to have Professor Paul Milich for Contracts and Professor E.R. Lanier for Civil Procedure. They were both witty in their presentations, but if you studied the material, you realized they were quite insightful.
What advice would you give current law students?
Work hard so that you learn the law and how to apply it, but also understand that character matters and your reputation precedes you and follows you. You should strive to be a person of integrity with high ethical standards. Give your best effort on any assignment you undertake, and be considerate of others.
What are some of the biggest issues/challenges facing the court?
‘Justice delayed is justice denied’ is an old adage that still rings true. From my time on the Juvenile Court bench I found that the parties wanted their matters heard in a timely manner, to be treated fairly and to leave the court with some understanding of why the court ruled the way it did. One of the most challenging functions of a Superior Court Judge is ensuring that all phases of a litigant’s case and criminal proceedings are scheduled and heard expeditiously and that the orders are produced and received by the parties in a timely manner.
Other challenges facing the court are: (i) ensuring that all parties have access to the court; (ii) that civil matters are not consumed by the constitutional demands to address criminal matters; (iii) maintaining a balance that allows pro se litigants to navigate the process without the judge having to become their advocate; (iv) ensuring that adequate resources are in place to fund court operations and programs; and (v) meeting the changing needs of people in the courts as expectations change, i.e. the implementation of accountability courts to address the social issues that caused a person to be before the court, drugs, mental health etc.
Judge Belinda E. Edwards (J.D. ’90) was sworn in as Fulton County superior court judge in December. She was with the firm of Hollowell Foster & Herring, focusing on mediation. Previously, Edwards has been chief judge of the Fulton County Juvenile Court, general counsel for Morris Brown College, senior attorney for Atlanta Public Schools and assistant city attorney and senior financial analyst for the city of Atlanta.