MARIETTA — With days to go until she takes over as Cobb County’s district attorney, Cobb Chief Magistrate Judge Joyette Holmes has been preparing for her new role that will have her managing a much larger department.
Speaking to the MDJ last week, Holmes will begin leading on Monday, July 1, an office with a budget of about $9 million and a staff of 120 — almost double the number of employees she currently oversees.
Holmes will be sworn in by Gov. Brian Kemp at Cobb Superior Courthouse at 10:30 a.m. on Monday, July 1 with a reception to follow.
It was Holmes’ executive experience, along with the sum of her professional career, that Kemp cited earlier this month just prior to announcing her as the county’s next district attorney.
Holmes had been the first woman and the first African American to serve as Cobb’s chief magistrate judge upon being appointed to fill the vacant role by the Cobb Superior Court in 2015. She will mark those same firsts with her appointment to head the Cobb DA’s office.
Holmes, who was elected to a four-year term as chief magistrate in 2016 on the Republican ticket, will succeed interim District Attorney John Melvin. Melvin was appointed interim after Kemp chose then-District Attorney Vic Reynolds to serve as director of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation in February.
Melvin, as announced in February shortly after assuming the interim DA role, will serve as Reynolds’ chief of staff at the GBI once Holmes begins her new position.
Prior to being appointed chief magistrate judge, Holmes served as a prosecutor under Reynolds and Cobb County Solicitor Barry Morgan. Holmes also operated and served clients in private practice in the Law Office of Joyette Holmes.
Holmes will serve as Cobb DA for the remainder of Reynolds’ term, which expires at the end of 2020.
In an interview with the MDJ on Wednesday, Holmes touched on her priorities and goals in her new role. The conversation with Holmes below has been edited for space and style.
Q: Why don’t you tell us how it all came down because there’s a lot of speculation. How did it all happen?
A: Growing up, I always wanted to be a lawyer, and I always wanted to be a judge. So those were natural pursuits for me. Certainly after Vic (Reynolds) left and went to the GBI, I had some conversations with people that I consider great mentors and advisers about my achievements in the magistrate court and in the community. The conversations led me to realize that I could further some of those priorities in the district attorney’s office. So I prayed about it. I had conversations with my husband, my family and those same mentors, and I decided that it was an opportunity where I could further serve Cobb County.
Q: How did you become a candidate?
A: There was a formal application process in contacting the governor’s office, that application was sent electronically over. I filled it out. And when the governor had time after session, he scheduled interviews. And that was probably about two weeks before the announcement.
Q: Do you know how many applicants there were?
A: I don’t know the total number. There was never a list published. ... There had been, I would say from eight to 18 names thrown around the Square on any given day. But I don’t know truly how many people applied.
Q: What do you have to submit to apply to be a district attorney?
A: It is the regular resume that you submit, but there was also an application with about 30 questions that asked about some of the cases that you have dealt with. … It also requested a writing sample.
Q: How do you prepare for transitioning into this role or how have you been preparing?
A: So I’ve started a number of conversations with the staff and the DA’s office to see what initiatives have been going on that I may not know from reading the paper or being in the courtroom, some of the background things. I talked with Vic, just about his experience and the DA’s role. I also talked a little bit to (former Cobb DA) Pat Head and Judge Collins.
Q: Going from magistrate to DA, will there be any situations you’ll have to recuse yourself?
A: It will be a case-by-case thing. We have the ability to call the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Counsel of Georgia to have other offices come in and handle cases. So if ever there were a circumstance where I felt like there was going to be a conflict because I handled the case in the MCS court or something like that, we could always request assistance to deal with those conflicts.
Q: Rep. David Wilkerson has suggested that DA Reynolds was too aggressive in his approach, particularly with gang prosecution. He said he wanted to see a different tactic, perhaps a more sensitive approach to the job. What is your take?
A: Look, there are gangs in Cobb County all over the county. It’s not particular to one area of the county. It’s a situation that has to be dealt with. And I think it’s dealt with in a number of different ways.
One of the things that I want to institute is a more proactive approach, whether it be in the schools and the local Boys and Girls Club, or other organizations, community centers around the county, having somebody from our office in those communities to try to work proactively. Obviously that proactive stance is not going to keep the problem from happening.
So yes, we will continue to work with law enforcement to investigate incidents involving gangs to prosecute those cases. But I plan to take … a holistic approach. I think at the time that Vic came into office, there were some issues that have not been resolved, just because different types of crimes were arising that made us take note. These aren’t just isolated incidents of breaking and entering or isolated incidents of trafficking — there is an organization behind these things. So before we were just looking at it as individual crimes, not realizing there was a network in certain areas doing these things. So once it was realized, look, this is more than just an individual crime, there had to be a different approach. So the approach that former DA Reynolds took was the appropriate approach at that time. I want to look at that, I want to also bring in things that I think will make a difference community-wide, because sometimes it’s just the perception (of) “no gangs,” or “no gangs in my area,” “that’s not in my school.” And that’s an awareness that if people don’t take note of, it’s not going to get any better, because we can’t do it alone in the district attorney’s office.
Q: Vic Reynolds has told us there are gangs in every high school in Cobb County.
A: Right. You know, it’s not a, this is “Walton X gang,” or this is “Harrison Y gang,” or this is “South Cobb Z gang.” It’s not like that. ... It’s not a suggestion that the school system is not being proactive and being mindful of what’s going on. ... It just is that there are people involved in gangs in every area of this county. So ultimately a school may be affected by that.
Q: So how do we solve the gang problem in Cobb County?
A: We have an amazing law enforcement community here in Cobb County. I think I have a responsibility as the person who is leading prosecutions on cases to build relationships and make sure that we understand who we are looking at with these problems. I would never want to be in a situation where we’re criminalizing a group of people for the sake of being in a group of people.
But what everybody does not know, and you know, even before working in the district attorney’s office, there were some things that I didn’t know and recognize, but there are more than just the color of the person’s clothes. The (gang) statute defines a “nexus.” When I say it defines a nexus, the statute requires there be a nexus, not just that a person is in a gang and that a person committed a crime, but there must be some nexus that the crime that was committed was in some way in furtherance of the gang, whether it be for clout, to be in leadership, to prove that they could be a good member of the gang. There are things that you look for as a judge handling probable cause and bond hearings.
Have I seen cases where that nexus is not really there? Yes, there have been some, but in those cases you have that after two weeks of being arrested, those particular charges may be dismissed based on there not being a nexus. And so I recognize that. I think my experience having been the chief magistrate court judge gives me a little bit more insight into what the court then sees. So I think we’re going to be very particular in how we handle those cases.
Again, I don’t think that the way that it’s been handled in the past was inappropriate. I think it was right for the time and what we learned at that time. And so we’ll look to see if the time still requires the same treatment as it relates to gangs or drugs, sex offenses, human trafficking. We’re going to do that.
Q: As DA, will you be trying any cases yourself?
A: Yeah, I do remember Vic being involved in a case when I was in the office. I don’t really recall after I left the office in 2015. But I think there are cases that it’s appropriate for the district attorney to participate in. So I wouldn’t say that I wouldn’t do that. I’m comfortable in the courtroom, have done it on both sides — on three sides at this point: as a defense attorney, prosecutor and a judge. So I wouldn’t have any hesitation for taking a case if the need arose for me to do that.
Q: Your immediate predecessor, interim DA John Melvin, created quite a stir with his comment on the heartbeat bill. The author of the Georgia’s new heartbeat law, state Rep. Ed Setzler, R-Acworth, has reportedly said that … doctors, nurses and pharmacists can be prosecuted under Georgia’s criminal abortion statute. When this case comes to you, how do you plan to handle that issue?
A: So I think first we have to evaluate the investigation of the cases. As the district attorney’s office, we’re not often seeking the prosecution — there has been some investigation by some law enforcement agency initially, so we’d have to evaluate that. The law is currently in the books. As the district attorney, I’m not an advocate for the Legislature or for anyone else, and my responsibility is to prosecute those cases that we believe are in violation of the law.
Because those who are for and those who are against the law believe that there will be a challenge before the law takes effect in January, I think that my responsibility is even more heightened to review the cases that could be brought before us. We are talking about cases that take away people’s liberty, that change their criminal histories just by being arrested, so it’s going to be my responsibility to make sure we are scrutinizing those cases.
Q: Is it a good law? Are you a fan of the law?
A: I’m not an advocate either way. You know, I could be in a situation where I felt like rolling through a stop sign. It shouldn’t be on the books, but it’s on the books, so if a case comes up that fits rolling through the stop sign as being failure to stop, then we have to prosecute that. I don’t think that personally my opinion about it makes a difference in how (they) are prosecuted.
Q: So Cobb Police haul in a doctor that performed an abortion. Do you go through with prosecuting that doctor?
A: I’m not going to answer a hypothetical question on facts.
Q: But it sounds like what you’re saying is you’re going to follow the law, whatever it says. You’re not going to bring your personal beliefs into it — if the law says do this, that’s what you’re gonna do. Are we reading that correctly?
A: Yeah, you are. And I know, especially from having been on all sides of the case, that just saying “a doctor performed an abortion after six weeks is a violation” does not fit what we have to look at for prosecution. There’s more in there. OK, so a doctor performed an abortion after six weeks — is there a circumstance where there’s a question on whether the pregnant person’s life or health was in jeopardy? What are other things that we have to evaluate that are listed in the statute, or maybe contemplated constitutionally, that we have to look at before we decide if we’re actually going to prosecute? So to answer the black-and-white question, it’s tough. And you know, over these last four-and-a-half years, certainly sitting as a judge, I recognize that even more.
Q: You are a Republican, you’ve run as a Republican, we assume you’re still a Republican.
Q: Why did you become a Republican? And why is that the party that best matches your values?
A: I don’t know if I could really tell you a date that I joined the Republican Party. I’ve always felt because of my aspirations to be a judge at that time, that it was not appropriate for people to know what political party I would have associated myself with. I think that’s clear after this year’s legislative session when myself and (Chief Probate Court) Judge (Kelli) Wolk went to the Legislature to have our judicial positions change to nonpartisan. Those who are affected by the court system do not want to go in believing that there’s any bias just because there’s an “R” or a “D” behind your name. So it was really important for us to make that change, and that’s a change that had been discussed for years, not just after what’s being called a (political) “shift” in this county.
But in applying for the chief magistrate job position, I understood that at that time, it was a partisan position. I’ve always been true to myself, true to my family, when I’ve made decisions, those political and not political.
Q: But the Republican Party has a certain set of values. What are some of those that you thought, ‘This is the party for me?”
A: Well, probably fiscal (matters), I’m fiscally conservative — I don’t want to say “responsible” — I think everybody aims to be responsible fiscally. There’s probably a little bit more of a conservative approach, especially when we’re dealing with other people’s finances and being responsible for that.
Q: As DA, what do you see as your top challenges in this job?
A: What I see most are probably offenses related to drugs, whether it’s drug use and abuse, sales and trafficking, how gangs may have an access to that. There’s been a big rash of property crimes, breaking and entering, some related to gangs but others not.
And dealing with our elderly population. There have been a number of schemes that target the elderly population. ... There, we have not put the resources into those types of investigations because there may be a focus elsewhere. I see that that should probably be a priority to making sure that we get a handle on those things.
Q: Aside from crime, what are some other challenges that you think your office will face?
A: Well, first, when Vic became the GBI director, he took a number of talented attorneys from the office, and I can’t blame him for that. So we do have some building to do. But having worked in that office and even seeing some of the newer attorneys that come over to magistrate court to practice, we have a great group of attorneys in that office. So I just look forward to building on that and replenishing some of the talent and experience.
I want to make sure that the team has the resources to do all the things that you’ve asked me about, so budget becomes an issue with that. I have, over the last four years, been able to build a great relationship with the county office, so I hope in being able to show them through the district attorney’s office the caseloads that we have, that things that each of the commissioners can observe in their own districts, that we need to boost our resources to be able to handle those things.
My third focus is community participation. I think having people on the ground even before and during investigations makes a difference in how we prosecute them in the end.
Q: Can you give an example of that community participation?
A: There’s a lot of ignorance of what we do in the district attorney’s office. You would think that just answering it by “prosecuting” would be easy, but I don’t think that’s our full responsibility. Gov. Deal … has made a great effort to pursue accountability courts, to push diversion programs. If we are in the community and there is somebody who gets charged, they’re on the cusp of something that might go into a diversion program or accountability court versus the mainstream prosecution path — if we have had boots on the ground, for lack of a better word, in the community centers, in the schools and other organizations, we may be familiar with that child, with that child’s sibling, that child’s family, and know that could be our success story. If you don’t have that, those hands in the community, I don’t think you have that or have the perspective to know that this is not the same as every situation.
And I want my prosecutors to be able to see and recognize those things and not just think that the next crack pipe case is the same as the last crack pipe-type case, or the last breaking-and-entering is the same as the first. So I think that community involvement just makes a huge difference. It pushes forward former Gov. Deal’s criminal justice reform that he put forward. I’m sure Gov. Kemp believes the same thing needs continue to happen.
In the end, the majority of the people who go through the criminal justice system come back out into the community. We want our community to be safe, so we need to do everything that we can do to keep that. My kids are here, my kids are going through the Cobb County school system, where, you know, there are issues that they deal with in that school. I ultimately want my family and your family to be safe.
Q: And Vic has said … in terms of the drug crisis, “this is not something we can arrest ourselves out of.” And it sounds like you’re saying the same thing.
A: One hundred percent.
Q: Do you plan to continue to support our accountability counts? Do you think there’s any room for expansion?
A: I absolutely think there’s room for expansion. I’m going to support those that are already in place, and as we develop other programs in the coming months, we are going to push hard for those things. I’ve seen cases that have come through the magistrate court that don’t really fit in one of the accountability courts that we have, and so it’s hard to make a decision as to what to do with that particular person in that we know that jail is not going to help, but there has to be some consequence to breaking the law. So we have to deal with that and find the middle ground to ensure that when that person is out, that they’re not coming back.
I often have told people in the court, “Look, I don’t want to see you here again. If we see each other, let it be in the aisles of Kroger, but not in the halls of this courthouse.” My position, no matter the role, remains the same.
Q: Lastly, are you planning on running for district attorney for a full four-year term in 2020, and as a Republican?