Episode Synopsis: Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of Georgia and former Judge of the Georgia Court of Appeals, Charlie Bethel shares various lessons he learned from his early trial court experiences, in particular his role as clerk for the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia. He also explains why lawyers should engage with non-legal individuals to challenge their arguments and benefit from more collaboration.
Justice Bethel: If you are a practicing attorney and you are not yet persuaded of your own fallibility, give it some time because we are all flawed and we all fail. And working together as attorneys, or co-counsel even, you don’t have to be a firm, we’re working together. We ought to be challenging one another because otherwise, there’s no real value in a collaborative effort.
Scott: That was Georgia’s Supreme Court Justice Charlie Bethel, talking about how the law can bring us low from time to time, how it can remind us of our flaws, even amplify our failures. But yet, how we, as co-counsel, as fellow lawyers can bring one another up and how we even as opposing counsel or as lawyers looking at each other from the bench, the bar, and the other way around can push each other to be better as a result of what ultimately is in the practice of law, a collaborative effort. You’re listening to the “Advocates Key” podcast. For more information about this podcast, my practice or to contact me, feel free to look us up at scottkeylaw.com or give us a call at (678) 610-6624.
Scott: Justice Bethel, how are you?
Justice Bethel: I’m wonderful, Scott. Thank you. How are you?
Scott: I am doing great. I’m having a little bit of pollen issues. I don’t know what’s blooming in Georgia in the past week. But whatever it is, it’s killing me. Other than that, I’m doing quite well.
Justice Bethel: I think everything is blooming in Georgia after all of the rain and warm weather.
Scott: Well, thanks for joining me. I really am honored to have you on. And I always give my guests on the podcast the opportunity to introduce themselves. So who is Justice Charlie Bethel?
Justice Bethel: Well, most importantly, I’m Lindsay’s husband and Henry, Jeff, and Joanna’s dad. But I was raised in Dalton, Georgia, which is still my home, graduated from Dalton High School, had both of my undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Georgia in Athens. After law school, lived in Atlanta for a couple of years where I clerked for Judge Charley Pannell on the District Court, Northern District of Georgia. I loved that time. Lindsay and I moved home to Dalton, where I practiced with what was called Minor, Bell & Neal at the time. It’s called The Minor Firm now. A lot of wonderful attorneys, had some great experiences. It’s one of the nice things about being in a relatively small town with a general practice firm, you get a lot of great experiences. I then transitioned to, what was at the time, a family business, J&J Industries, where I had legal roles, but also thankfully, we didn’t have enough legal work. But that was a 60-hour a week role, so I got a lot of exposure into human resources and other parts of the business, which I loved being a part of for over a decade.
I’ll give you an example, Scott. I was the plan administrator for our self-funded health plan during the implementation of the Obamacare world. And so I got a crash course and a lot of education and things that weren’t a part of law school or frankly, even business school, what I was going through. So I loved that experience. I loved that exposure. In the meantime, during my time at J&J, I also ran for my local city council and was elected and served there prior to running for the Georgia State Senate when my predecessor announced his retirement, and enjoyed that service as well. I got a lot of exposure there that was not part of my upbringing. I didn’t grow up in the political world. It’s interesting, I was always a voter, always sort of those sorts of things, but I didn’t go intern at the Capitol or those sorts of things as a student. So I learned a lot and enjoyed that. And Governor Diehl allowed me to serve as a floor leader for his administration. And in those conversations, I had some folks suggest that maybe to consider pursuing the bench. And it’s something that was of interest to me and a passion, I guess, when you’re studying the law, and even those early years, thinking it’s an opportunity that may be worth pursuing.
But I really had thought it was probably not going to be part of my future, in that having gone into a corporate world, in-house and those sorts of pathways don’t tend to lead to the bench. So I thought about it, prayed about it, talked to my wife about it and decided this was something that I would love doing and would be a place where I could be of service. And so I put my name forward when the next vacancy came around and was appointed to the Court Of Appeals. I was elected subsequent to that to the Court of Appeals, but didn’t even begin that term when a vacancy on the Supreme Court came along and again, with the encouragement of some friends I allowed my name to be put forward in that process and was appointed and then subsequently elected to the Supreme Court. And I’ve loved it. I love the people I work with and love the work that we do.
Scott: So going back, do you live in the town that you grew up in or near the town that you grew up in?
Justice Bethel: I do. I live in Dalton, Georgia. And I live all of about three miles from the house I was raised in.
Scott: And growing up, did you think that you would be a lawyer one day? Tell me about the decision to become an attorney or to go to law school.
Justice Bethel: Well, Scott, it’s a good question. I was always interested in a legal education. And so I don’t know how interested I was in being a lawyer. And I’ll clarify that, my…let’s see, my father is an attorney, and he took a non-traditional route to law school, and then a non-traditional post law school route, after law school, I guess, traditionally, he was an assistant district attorney, but then went back into the business world. But throughout my childhood, my father stressed that his legal education was just invaluable to him in the business world, in community work. He’s been very active in our Community Foundation of Northwest Georgia and other engagements. He just said having that background, having that experience, and being able to look at the world through that lens had always benefited him. So a legal education was always interesting and something that I thought when I get to the end of my undergraduate world would be something I would explore. But I’m not entirely sure how much I wanted to be a lawyer per se. I just knew that this was something my dad said had helped him.
Scott: Did he ever say why? I mean, I think I probably can guess why, but because I think there’s all sorts of things that add benefit from having a law school education, that probably would carry me into things if I weren’t a lawyer. But did he ever say what it was about the legal education that he thought helped him in other endeavors? And when you went to law school, did you find that that played out for you as well?
Justice Bethel: Yes. and sort of the most practical level, one of the things that he said was always beneficial is it helped him know when he needed a lawyer in the business world and otherwise. That is to say, you know, a lot of times people threaten legal action, or a lot of times people bring issues and you think you have to go have a lawyer or you think because the other side has a lawyer, that brings anxiety to the table because people feel like there’s a disparity and understandably so. I mean, at the most practical level, that was something he always said was important to him is he knew when he needed help on the legal side. But then also, I think, the critical thinking skills, the sorts of issue spotting that lawyers are trained in, and then just a comfortability with being able to read legal text and not, you know, fall into the cavern that many of us have when you start getting into some long contract or whatever statute that you’re reading and you think, “I know their words here and I understand all the words, what they mean.” I think that training always proved beneficial to him.
And I think it did to me as well. I loved law school because I just wanted to know about everything. And it was just, it’s a place where you got exposed. And I was lucky enough to have some great professors along the way. But I was less concerned with what I was going to do from a resume standpoint than I was and just acquiring the knowledge that was available to me and seeing different points of view. And so that’s been beneficial. That experience, certainly beneficial to me in the business world, certainly beneficial to me in the legislative world when I was serving in that capacity. When you’re in the legislature, I always encourage attorneys to think about the legislature because it makes you invaluable to your peers because the business of legislating is creating those laws that govern us. And so people who aren’t trained in reading and understanding those things come to the lawyers right away.
Scott: Well, then it used to be the case that most of the Georgia legislature, and probably Congress, were made up of lawyers. And I think I suppose now that most people in the Georgia General Assembly, they come from the business, from a business background and not necessarily a legal education.
Justice Bethel: I think that’s true. Also, there’s a lot of people that come from education backgrounds who maybe had an early retirement. You are absolutely correct that the proportion of our legislature that consists of lawyers has decreased. And, you know, some people may think that’s a good thing.
Scott: It may be.
Justice Bethel: I do think it’s important that they have a reflective point of view. But then there’s a lot of folks in in Georgia, for example, a lot of folks who have connection to the agriculture industry. But that’s probably very appropriate given that that’s our number one economic base in Georgia. But it is also important that we have folks there who understand the ramifications because if you’re speaking from your point of view when you’re there and trying to legislate from your point of view, it can be difficult if you’re not trained in understanding sort of legal jargon and how statutes and laws work together to have somebody there to say, “What you’re trying to do is a good thing. You may also need to think about these other consequences and how they all play in,” because it’s just not the way most folks are trained to think.
Scott: And lawyers are trained to anticipate problems that might arise from maybe unclear language or statutory language, that you mean one thing but your meaning is not going to be what carries the day. When that bill becomes a law, you may have meant something but the wording of the statute might take you in a completely different direction. And I don’t think non-lawyers maybe grasp that as much as people with legal training do.
Justice Bethel: I think that’s fair.
Scott: Where did you go to college before you went to law school?
Justice Bethel: So I graduated from the University of Georgia. I had a little bit of a meandering trip. My mother and my oldest brother were graduates of Auburn University, and I actually started there on an academic scholarship, and love the plains and love Auburn. It’s a wonderful place. I transferred up to Athens as an undergraduate. And it was a wonderful move for me. I tell people I was not raised in Athens. I was born there. Actually my dad, as I think I mentioned, was a non-traditional law student. I was born in his third year of law school. So I tell people I went home to the Classic City. I loved it. I just thrived in that environment. It’s a great college town. So that’s where my undergraduate was and then stayed for law school. And my wife Lindsay was getting her PharmD degree from the pharmacy school, and she actually finished before I finished law school. So we lived that life where she was out and I was still in. But those were some wonderful years.
Scott: What did you study as an undergraduate?
Justice Bethel: Business. My degree is in business management. So I thought that Terry College, it’s a great school.
Scott: Well, let me ask you this, did you intern or did you work in a law firm or anything like that when you were in law school?
Justice Bethel: I did. I spent a summer with the firm that I ultimately went to after clerking, which was again Minor, Bell & Neil and now called The Minor Firm up in Dalton. So I spent a summer with them. And then I also spent a summer with Gary Andrews, the late Gary Andrews, who was a judge on the Georgia Court of Appeals, who allowed me to come work with him for the summer. And I loved working with Judge Andrews on that court. It was really great across the hall was John Ellington, who of course, is one of my colleagues on the Supreme Court. And he was sort of early in his tenure on the Court Of Appeals at that time. So a lot of great relationships and experiences through those times.
Scott: And then I know you mentioned you clerked, and I can’t remember the judge you said. I know Gary Andrews when you were in law school. But you also clerked for a judge when you…
Justice Bethel: I did. I clerked for Judge Charlie Pannell on the United States District Court, Northern District of Georgia. They are in Atlanta. I was in his chambers. He was beginning a jury trial on September 11th. So that sort of gave me and put me in context. But, yeah, that was a great two years with Judge Pannell and had great co-clerks. And I’m a big advocate for clerking at any level. I do think trial courts are a great place for folks who are interested in the litigation process and how court works. So I believe, we’ll have to confirm this, but I think legislature has funded clerks for all superior court judges in Georgia in the most recent budget, which some of them have been sharing clerks for many years. And so I’m a big believer that recent graduates who can get a chance to clerk for a trial court judge, there is no substitute.
Scott: And you specifically say trial court judge versus, you know, an appellate court. What do you think it is about clerking at the trial court level, whether it be federal or state that’s distinct from…because I mean, I know you had some experience working in an appellate chambers. What do you think is distinct about the trial court process or being a clerk in a trial court?
Justice Bethel: Well, first of all, I don’t want to sound as though I don’t support appellate clerking. I do, and I have some great clerks and interns and externs. And I think it’s a great part of the experience, and I wouldn’t trade my time with Judge Andrews. But I do think that getting into a trial court has, to me, two advantages over an appellate clerkship. And the one is that the pace of the trial court allows you to see more advocacy up close and in person. And what I mean by that is you’re seeing more attorneys, more litigants, hopefully, you know, jurors, and those sorts of things come through during your time so that you get to see it in person. And I’m a believer in in-person education. What you see helps you to learn. And the second is that it’s just the volume of work. And it’s not to say that you don’t have a high volume in an appellate setting because, well, we have very busy appellate courts. And I think the 11th Circuit certainly works very hard. But if you come and clerk on our court for a year, you’re going to get three terms of court. And, you know, depending on what the caseload is, you may not be working on more than two handfuls worth of cases. If they’re sort of boring cases, you’re sort of stuck with it. I can’t really imagine going into a trial court and getting, you know, only 10 cases or whatever that you’re going to work on. You’re going to get to work on a lot of different…and see a lot of different cases. I just think that’s valuable.
Scott: Well, you may show up to the office one day and five things may come your way that you didn’t expect and maybe you didn’t even know existed the day before. And I suppose that’s even the case in the federal bench. I mean, you may end up signing a search warrant, or, you know, dealing with wiretaps, or jury instructions. I mean, it seems like there’s a whole host of things that you deal with that can be emergent from time to time as well.
Justice Bethel: I think that’s exactly right. Anyway, I think too, when I say attorneys who are very interested in litigating, that’s when I say a trial court clerkship because you’re going to get to see court. And, you know, this I mean, most court happens in trial court. Only a limited subset ever makes it into the appellate world. And then when it does get to the appellate world, it’s usually not all of the issues and all the things that were part of the trial, it’s a select whatever the enumerated errors are or those sorts of things.
Scott: Yeah. It may come down to one thing. I mean, it may come down to one thing and you might have had a trial that was six weeks long. This particular judge that you worked for, what was it like working for him? What do you think are some things you took away from clerking in district court?
Justice Bethel: Well, Judge Pannell had been a superior court judge up in my home, the Conasauga Circuit, Whitfield and Murray counties for decades before he went on the federal bench. And he is, in my mind, sort of the classic trial court judge. He really works hard to make sure that the parties’ issues are presented on the merits. He lets lawyers try their cases. But he’s not indecisive. He will make a decision and move on. He gets how court works. And so the first thing I would say stands out is he was very adamant that you should know exactly what you want before you step into a courtroom if you’re an attorney. And he was very insistent that attorneys that came before him had a clear understanding of what they’re asking the court to do. And I know that sounds simple, but it’s not…
Scott: It sounds really basic, but I think there have been times when I’ve gone into court and… I mean, I think just articulating, “Okay, what’s my goal here?” can keep you out of a lot of problems when you get into a courtroom. And that does sound very basic. But it is something that I think we’re all kind of guilty of who practice law. Like maybe you just object to something because you think…if you’re not careful, you can just object for the sake of objecting or you’re just fighting the other side and you’re not thinking about what your endgame is.
Justice Bethel: I think that’s right. And the other two things I would say from my time with Judge Pannell, one is he had a very consistent commitment to getting the law right for all of us in chambers. He was adamant that he wasn’t interested in which side prevailed, that we were to get the law right and let the chips fall where they may. And, you know, as someone who had gone through the legal education process and wanted to believe that’s the way courts work and worked, it was gratifying and reassuring to me to have that experience with him. And then the second of those two things is that he was insistent that we speak up if he was going to be wrong or make a mistake. He did not want us to simply agree because he was the judge. You know, I tell people this, I tell my clerks that I interview this, “If we are…” this is what he said, “If we are reversed by the 11th Circuit and the case comes back and that’s the first time you say, ‘Well, Judge, I was kind of worried about that,'” he said, “you’ll be fired.” But the point was clear that you need to speak up when there’s still something to be done about it. And I think that it’s important for lawyers at any stage not to be so concerned about, “What if I’m wrong or what if I speak up and I’m embarrassed by having missed something?” If you see something, as an attorney, you know, you ought to speak up and say, “I think there’s mistake being made,” or, “I think we at least need to consider this argument,” and then let the judge do their job. But if you haven’t apprised them of your concern, you’ve done a real disservice to the court.
Scott: And that’s something that you’ve taken with you, I guess, as a Court of Appeals judge and now as a justice on the Supreme Court with your staff.
Justice Bethel: Absolutely. I tell him all the time, “When we’re working on a case, it is our case.” Nobody’s confused about whose name is ultimately going to be signed, you know, who’s going to be there on the opinion or the order. But in our chambers, I want them to argue with me, push me, challenge me, tell me they think I’m wrong when they do because that’s the only real value. Otherwise, they’re just sort of helping in the word processing. That’s helpful, but it’s not really the true value of having attorneys on staff.
Scott: Well, and I suppose lawyers can take a lesson from that too, that your associates or your paralegals, you know, should all be that empowered to kind of chime in and tell you if you’re about to do something you shouldn’t do in corridor, take a position or file something that you shouldn’t file. I think that’s something that’s very helpful, not only on your side of the bench but from the bar’s perspective as well.
Justice Bethel: Well, I agree. If you are a practicing attorney and you are not yet persuaded of your own fallibility, give it some time because we are all flawed and we all fail. And I tell folks that come visit our court all the time, the only real value of having paneled appellate courts is that it decreases the likelihood of error. It doesn’t eliminate the likelihood of error. If we had a perfect judge, they could just be the sole appellate judiciary. They could just sort of answer questions. But by listening to one another and trying to help point out, “Well, I think you missed that or I think that’s wrong,” that’s how we’re designed to work in an appellate court. But it’s really how firms are supposed to work. If we’re working together as attorneys or co-counsel even, you don’t have to be a firm, we’re working together, we ought to be challenging one another because otherwise, there’s no real value in a collaborative effort.
Scott: I think it’s so dangerous, particularly as an advocate because over a period of time, I think a couple of things happen if you really believe in a case. I’ve never loved the notion or the phrase “zealous advocacy.” I think the notion of, “I don’t want to be a zealot about anything,” I think the notion of zealous advocacy, it can be dangerous. And I think if you’re not careful, you can justify cutting certain ethical corners to advance your client’s interest. I think the other thing that happens when you’re representing someone is you become an expert in that case or you become an expert in the particular issues of that case, and you lose sight of what it’s like to not be an expert in that case or the issues of that case. And when you present your case, you sometimes can fail to make it simple. You lose sight of what it’s like to not be as familiar with the case as you are. And I think sometimes having people around you, even if it’s not in your firm, even if it’s a spouse or a friend that you can say, “Look, here’s something I’m thinking about saying in court. What do you think about this?” I’ve found that a lot of times it’s non-lawyers that I will run something by that will really help me figure out that I’m doing something wrong.
Justice Bethel: I think that’s very wise. I actually am, I guess, a rarity in that I’ve served on two juries in my life. And having sat in a civil and a criminal jury box, I really feel like I would like to go back and maybe redo some things I’ve done before then, at least in practice because you’re exactly right. I think that we get so engaged and so knowledgeable about our cases and the issues that we sometimes lose track, particularly in jury trials, of who the audience is. And they are strangers to the facts and the law. And really, that’s the best part. And I agree with your point on this whole zealous advocacy standpoint, to the extent zealot has a connotation of sort of being just radical and sort of “devil may care, I’m all in” approach. I do think that that’s a dangerous way to think about the work that lawyers do because I think we’re always called on to be thoughtful and consider sort of the totality of what we’re doing and not just…there are plenty of voices that are shouting and just demanding a certain outcome. But thoughtfulness to me seems to be the mark of good advocacy, at least for lawyers.
Scott: And I think that’s where the check in with people who maybe don’t have the familiarity with the case…or, I mean, just having people around you who are empowered to tell you they think you’re wrong is so important. So when you were clerking in the district court, I know you said that you were always more interested in a legal education than necessarily being a lawyer. And so you’re, you know, in the midst of your two year clerkship in federal court, what did you think was next for you? What was your vision for what you were going to do with your law school education at the point that you were kind of wrapping up your time with Judge Pannell?
Justice Bethel: Well, late in that process, I committed to work for, again, what’s now The Minor Firm, Minor, Bell & Neal up in Dalton. And by that time, Lindsay and I were married. Our first child was born during that clerkship, Henry was born. And we had sort of decided a couple of things in order. First, we knew we wanted to stay and live in Georgia. And then the second piece was where in Georgia. And after sort of considering a lot of different communities and where we thought we wanted to settle and raise our family, we couldn’t find a place that we thought beat Dalton is I guess the best way of saying that. So Dalton sort of probably started as the default leader. We had grandparents, our parents, you know, which would ultimately be grandparents, living here. So we decided to settle in Dalton, and I spoke with a few firms here. But I thought that was what I was going to do, practice law, work with a firm, work with folks that I respected and thought were very competent professionals and then, you know, sort of take it from there, see what else was in front of me.
I tell people that, even today, I wrestle with what it is I want to be when I grow up. I have always had sort of an interest in many things. And I continue to have that, although I think I’ve probably found what it is I’m going to do or hopefully found what I’m going to do when I grow up. So I didn’t have a set path. And I tell law students this, and I hope it’s true for everybody is I think we spend a lot of time focusing on planning out steps in our path as opposed to getting the right backpack on. And what I mean by that is I run across so many people who have decided, “I’m going to do this, and then I’m going to do this, I’m going to do this, and this is my career path,” and a lot of those things are dependent upon timing, a lot of those things are dependent upon what opportunities come along. And then when that doesn’t happen, according to that it feels like a failure. It feels like you’ve not accomplished your desired path.
And to me, I think all of us, young people included, but all of us really ought to be focused on what are the characteristics of places that I want to work? What do I want to be true about my practice, about my professional or about my personal life whenever the day comes that somebody is writing my obituary? And then, as opportunities come along, as things come along in your pathway, the question is, does that fit with my desired life? And so it’s less about having this one step…I run into, you know, young people, and I get it, I understand it, you know, “Well, I’m going to be a federal judge,” and that’s a wonderful goal. It’s a wonderful career path. That’s great. But of course, that requires there to be a vacancy somewhere in your career that fits you. That is to say it’s got to be early enough that somebody wants to appoint you because you’ll have a tenure, because you’re appointed on good behavior, which for most people turns out to be life, then you also have to know your state’s United States senators and/or somebody in the presidential pipeline.
So you’ve gotta have an opportunity that’s the right time, relationships that are right, and that’s a long way out to plan. And so if you don’t get that, and you view that as a failure, that seems incompatible to me with saying, “Instead, I would like to be the sort of person who would be considered for those opportunities should they arise,” and then how does somebody go about doing that? What are the sorts of characteristics and community relationships that you would build? Because it might be that opportunity doesn’t present itself, but some other similar opportunity does. And then it’s not a consolation prize. This is consistent with my desired pathway.
Scott: So the distinction you’re drawing here is if you say, “There’s this thing I want to be. I want to be the president of the United States,” or, “I want to be a senator,” or, “I want to be a federal district court judge,” I suppose, you could say, “I want to be a professional baseball player,” I mean, if there’s a particular job you want to have one day and you sort of build around that versus there’s this thing I would love to become and so I need to develop the skills to be that, but there are things that might happen beyond my control that may…or the path may never open, and so what are the skills or what are the characteristics I need to acquire that if that path doesn’t open up, then I have these things, these tools with me that I could then use for something else equally as good?
Justice Bethel: And I think that’s exactly right. Well, going back to my own biography, you talked about where I came in, and ultimately, obviously, I got into the political world. As a child, the only thing that I ever thought would be interesting to me in the political world was to be on the school board, the local school board because my grandfather had been on the school board. And I thought that was a great way to serve. And so I’ve never been on a school board, never run for school board election. But I didn’t set that out as a goal. I just said, “Well, what are the characteristics of those sorts of people?” They know folks around the community. They understand the education process. They value those sort of things. Well, those are the same sorts of things that ultimately became value to me when I ran for a city council seat and ultimately state legislature seat, neither of which were sort of on a plan. But by being equipped to be valuable and be of service to others, then when other opportunities came along, I could say yes to those and already sort of be somewhat prepared.
I love talking to your class at Mercer’s Law School, Scott. And one of the things I think I talk about there and I think fits the same discussion is that, you know, we unfortunately, and sadly, live in a world that has a tendency to divide ourselves into camps. And most of those are terribly unhelpful at interpersonal and societal level. But I have sort of roughed out a theory of a division that’s useful. I wish that there wasn’t a division. In other words, I wish everybody was in one side of this camp. But it is useful in sort of understanding how people interact with the world. And I’ve told your students…I need to find a better way to articulate this, but I’ll do my best.
Justice Bethel: To me, there are generally sort of two types of people that enter into society. And it’s a mindset. There are the get-a-bargain people and the be-a-bargain people. And my initial big disclaimer is I’m not talking about like going shopping. I’m all for getting stuff on sales and coupon clipping. That’s wonderful. But I mean, in terms of how we provide ourselves to our neighbors, and to our employers, and to our communities at large. And so, get-a-bargain people are people who let’s say they get a job and the pay rate is $20. I get paid $20 an hour to do whatever job it is that I have. Get-a-bargain people think of their work, whether explicitly or implicitly, they think of it in terms of what’s the least I can do and still get $20 for every hour that I’m on the clock? And so I’m getting a bargain. For the amount of effort I’m putting in, for the quality of work that I’m putting in, I’m getting the most return. And all of these suckers, as it were, that I work with that are working harder than me, they’re getting less, you know, dollar per effort. And so I’m winning at this economic transaction.
The be-a-bargain thinkers are the people who say, “Okay, if a job pays $20 an hour, I’m going to be the most valuable $20 this place has ever spent,” wherever the employer is, “and I’m going to make sure that everybody knows that they are getting their money’s worth and then some from me. I will be very valuable.” And my observation is, from having worked in HR and worked in the legislature and all these different places is that people who are be-a-bargain people, they want to be valuable, are the folks who get promotions, and get raises, and advancements. And people call them and ask them to be on boards. People call them and ask them to do things or think about doing things because people see them as valuable. People know, “Oh, if I get that lady, or if I get that lawyer or doctor,” they are relentless. They put forth more than sort of everyone else. And the net effect of that is the opportunities that come along mean that they are ultimately in positions of higher compensation, higher responsibility, higher accountability.
And the people who are the get-a-bargain thinkers, they don’t get those opportunities. And they’re also sort of dumbfounded by what’s happening around them. It doesn’t resonate with them that the basis is you are barely worth what you’re getting paid to do what you’re doing, why would I give you more? Why would I give you a greater opportunity of advancement? So anyway, I’m a be-a-bargain advocate. In other words, I wish that the world looked at it from the standpoint of no one is going to be more valuable at this price point than I am because I think that sort of thinking, it ultimately enriches the one who thinks that way because it’s just a long-game thinking.
Scott: I think probably if you’re a get-a-bargain person, the world probably at times, and maybe most of the time, probably begins to seem unfair to you. There probably is lots to complain and be upset about.
Justice Bethel: I think that’s exactly right. And that’s very true because you see people having more, and you haven’t figured out yet what the cause of that is. And that’s not to minimize all of the factors that are present in society. There are disparities and things throughout there. But those things, most of us at the individual level, don’t have the ability to turn, or influence, or change, at least not, you know, as it impacts our individual lives. But we can be committed to saying, “For me, I’m going to be the best value I can be and just watch as opportunities come.”
Scott: So that’s a very wise point. And I think it does connect to what you were talking about, the notion of what’s in your backpack versus what do you want it to be or what do you want to do. And when did you have this insight and as you were beginning to practice law, and as you sort of made your way through your career to the school board and to the bench? What things were in your backpack?
Justice Bethel: The basics of that are informed probably by my family. I have a wonderful mother and father and two older brothers. We talked about earlier about being receptive to criticism. I’ve never been under the illusion that I was perfect. I have two older brothers who disabused me of that thought process very early in life. And I’m thankful for that. I do. They are wonderful brothers to me. And then for me, and as it relates to my story, I think that, you know, my faith. I’m a believer in Christ, and I think that my faith-life also helped inform this notion of being useful to others. Being valuable to others is something that is consistent with my view of, you know, our purpose as beings. I would say the basics and the foundations of that came from a family that we would sit around the breakfast table, the dining room table and talk about what was happening in our community. And as we got older, maybe what was happening in the state, in the country, on the issues of the day, politics issues, non-politics issues. My parents encouraged us to have our own thoughts about what was important and what was the right thing to do or how things should be. And if we wanted to write a letter to somebody, they would help us do it.
And so I think that, at least for me, started at an early age. And I always wanted to, in school, learn things that would make me useful, whether it was in a direct employment setting or just sort of in general. So in law school, when you get out of the first stage where they tell you what classes you take, I was looking for a diversity of classes. I never wanted to be a trust and estates lawyer. But I took those classes because I thought those are things that lawyers need to know and probably being the only member in my generation of my family that was in law school, everybody’s going to want you to be the administrator of an estate someday. And so you might be want to be just familiar with this world, enough so that you could do it. And so it’s that sort of thinking that I think followed me along the way. I thought, you know, there’s things you want to be equipped to know. And you can’t know everything, so I try to prioritize.
Scott: This may be a bit of a tangent, but I’m interested, it sort of piqued my curiosity just now. You talked about being in a household where you can discuss around the dinner table the issues of the day, political issues, whether that be local and statewide or nationwide. That speaks to a level of political engagement. I wonder, it seems like we are, and maybe in a darker way, have never been more politically engaged as a country than we are today. And, you know, I see that on social media quite a bit. And it’s not always pleasant. It’s kind of disheartening. It seems like that there’s some engagement with that. But it somehow seems distinct from what you were describing. What would you say about the level of political engagement and discourse that we sort of find ourselves in today versus what you were describing, or maybe even in your own life now, someone who’s, you know, politically active and you hold a seat on the Supreme Court of Georgia. Where do you see the level of discourse and political engagement now versus what you were describing a second ago?
Justice Bethel: Well, I think a couple of things I guess that I would comment on that is that I now live in what is distinctly and definitively a political world, but in a non-partisan way. And so judges in Georgia are non-partisan and protective of that, but also treasure that. I think it’s important that our judiciary be removed from sort of the political factions that really parties represent. And so I think that that sort of thinking is consistent with what I was describing earlier. That is to say, around the table, with my family, my dad in particular, would, you know, in retrospect, he would take positions opposite what we were saying just so that not everybody at the table agreed, just so that we would challenge our thinking, just so that we would have to go through the process of explaining why it is we thought what we thought, as opposed to just saying, “This is what I think and I’m going to shout it as loud as I can until you agree with me, or I’ve banished you, you know, chased you away.”
And I think that one of the things that is missing from public political discourse today, in a lot of circles…there are exceptions, but we just don’t see them a lot, they’re certainly not what’s covered in the new cycle, but what’s missing is a sort of healthy, for lack of a better word, humility. I think we talked about it earlier when we talked about lawyers, our legal work and sort of an acknowledgment and an acceptance of our own fallibility and the possibility that we could be wrong to me counsels a commitment to graciously listening to differing opinions and differing views and recognizing that most of the time, people with different political views from ours are probably actually very closely aligned in terms of their goals and purposes with us. They just think of it differently or have a different opinion about what’s the best way to accomplish those goals. There are certainly exceptions. I mean, but they are exceptions. They’re not the rule. And so my experience in my family and really most of my life has been with people, I’ve always sought out relationships and connectivity with those whom I disagreed.
Scott: It sounds like you see politics as a means to serve the greater community and less as a way to identify yourself as part of a particular group that’s somehow better than another particular group.
Justice Bethel: Well, I hope so. I mean, politics is sort of a necessary evil within the people who have chosen to self-govern. So political parties and factions are sort of the necessary result of people who’ve decided to elect representatives and have that sort of governmental structure where the people are governing themselves. So even in like, you know, my local community when I was on the city council, the city council is nonpartisan in Dalton and decidedly so has been for a long time, but there’s still factions. I mean, people who are really in favor of more recreation resources, and people who are really in favor of lower taxes, and people who are really supportive of the library system. And so there are still groups that gather to try and persuade and influence policy and they may not be identified with some sort of party. You know, it’s a natural consequence that people are going to aggregate in groups. But the purpose of the government is not to perpetuate or strengthen any party.
My experience is a lot of party people, when I was…sort of decent people who were really invested in party politics, don’t realize that or remember that as being sort of one of the foundations is that those entities exist to influence and aggregate, but the ultimate purpose of the government is to serve the people. And since the people have a lot of different views and constituencies, no one individual or even one individual group should expect to have their way always all the time.
Scott: So as you’ve gone into now the Court of Appeals and Supreme Court, these are two unique sorts of offices, you do stand for election, so it is political in nature, you had some experience because, you know, you worked in the General Assembly and you’ve worked in local government in a political capacity, how do you think that your experience in more traditional partisan political office prepared you to be a judge and now a justice? And how do you think this is unique and different now that you’ve been on the bench for a while?
Justice Bethel: It’s a great question, and I’ll expand it if you’ll forgive me.
Justice Bethel: I tell people all the time that being a local recreation league coach and working in the family’s business in the corporate industry and going in and working on employee disputes with supervisors on third shift and those sorts of things is just as valuable as all those other things you just listed for me, in my current job. And part of it is twofold. One is all of those experiences have only cemented my view that the judicial branch is, number one, called to be outside of partisan life. You’re right, it’s certainly political in that we’re elected. But the courts must be non-partisan to be able to discharge their duty. And the other is to remember that there are myriad points of view in Georgia. Well, I think we’re up to 11 million or so folks that live here. We’ll wait and see what the official census report is actually this year. But in any event, they are living their life, they’re experiencing life. And as I go about the job I have today, my duty is to discharge the role of being a justice in a way that they have directed.
And I know that sort of sounds backwards because most people don’t think of themselves as directing the Supreme Court of Georgia. But they have, you know, established a constitution and then, through their representatives, a body of law. And they have said, “These are the rules of Georgia.” And so my job is to enforce those rules and to make sure that they are faithfully and consistently applied to cases that come into the courts of Georgia. In the partisan world and in the legislative world, the job is to influence the changing of those rules or to shape those rules. And that was an experience unto itself. But that’s sort of no longer my job, if that makes sense. And so I think that those experiences, having done that and seeing how that process works, only sort of reaffirms my desire not to be doing that where I am now because that’s a very different process.
I have extremely bright and capable and hardworking colleagues, and all eight of them are, you know, they’re wonderful Georgians and wonderful people. But having sat on the city council where you made policy, having sat in the legislature where state law and policy is made, that’s where the decision of what the rules of Georgia is supposed to…it’s constitutional where it’s supposed to, but also, it’s where it’s better done. Even for all the rules and all of the legislative process, the eight people I sit with and myself included are not situated to make the rules for Georgia as it relates to, you know, statutes and stuff. Obviously, the Constitution lets us have rules for court because we are situated to do that. But in any event, it just sort of reinforces that for me. And then I think it also helps just in the process of relating to the General Assembly. Occasionally, they will be interested when they’re legislating in the area of the courts and getting input. And so it helps to have been there and seen that process and been a part of it to be able to interpret and relate across the road as it were.
Scott: What about the actual day to day work of getting, you know, opinions out and every now and then you’ll have a split, you know…and I mean most decisions from the Supreme Court are nine-zero, but you have those opinions that, you know, where you have some division. Speak a little bit to the notion or sort of the idea of building consensus within a court when you have a divided court or, you know, just getting the work done working with eight other…I mean, when you were on the Court of Appeals, you work primarily with two other people at a time, and now you’re in a position where you work with the entire court. How did your preparation or your past experience prepare you for the sort of the work of getting opinions out or building consensus when you’re deciding cases?
Justice Bethel: Well, the nuts and bolts level, Scott, just getting opinions out, I think probably my work in the flooring industry. I mean, my chambers, my folks, they know we have sort of a production schedule. For lack of a description, we sit down periodically as the chambers, and we just sort of plan out, “Okay, when do we want to circulate this? When do we think this will be ready, when will this…submit brief memo, all those sorts of things,” and we stay in touch. And if there’s something that comes up, or we run across an issue that’s more thorny than we thought, we renegotiate and we manage our production schedule amongst ourselves. And really, that probably, I’d say, comes out of the carpet manufacturing, my background. But in terms of sort of the intellectual side of it, I do think that having worked in the business and political world of having to get consensus and having to present your ideas to others is valuable. I think most people who think about it probably have those sorts of experiences. Our court does spend a lot of effort in trying to reach consensus and unanimity when it’s available. I mean, in other words, we don’t value it or prize it above accuracy or getting things right. But there are times when a thought will be left out because it’s not essential, and, you know, there’s some folks on the court who have a little heartburn about it.
And I think that’s probably a good thing in the sense that it clearly states what we all have agreed on and leaves other stuff out. You will also see, you know, concurrences sometimes where somebody really has something they feel like needs to be said and it gets in. So it’s out there and it’s in writing for people to sort of pick up on and look at it. You know, one of the things I appreciate probably more now than I did, I didn’t really ever have an extensive appellate practice when I practiced law. Most of my work was in trial courts, and so how much emphasis some attorneys put on this dissent or this concurrence, and what does it mean or if there’s a concurral or dissental from a cert petition. What does it mean about what the court is trying to do? And certainly, I think, you know, if I was in those shoes and practitioners like yourself, I wouldn’t be paying attention to those. I do think that sometimes maybe people read more into them than just the judge sort of had something they needed to say and they got it off their chest. But, you know, there is signalling I think that some judges….not just on our court but others, tend to do as well.
Scott: So we look at those things like the Delphic Oracle or something and really the Justice may have been venting.
Justice Bethel: I think that’s true. You have to account for that possibility. Maybe it doesn’t mean as much as it seems to mean. I do think that we are conscious as a body and as members of our court of that. So I mean, there will be a conversation and people will suggest edits and say, “I may not even be joining your concurrence or dissent, but you may want to think about how that reads or how that sounds.” And so I think all of those life experiences I think as somebody who’s married, having a married life and sort of negotiating a shared life is also good practice for being on a court.
Justice Bethel: [crosstalk 00:52:34.224] peers. And sometimes you have to go and say, “I disagree with you. And this is why. And let’s talk through it.” And sometimes you think, “I’ve got a different reason for why I agree with you and let’s talk.” So those are skills that we hope all adults have. But it certainly is placed in high demand on our court.
Scott: Well, now, how has your chambers functioned? I say this. I’m scheduled today to get my first of two COVID vaccination shots. And hopefully, we’re about to come to the end of some of this. I’ve heard varying reports as to how much longer we have of this pandemic. But how has your chambers worked? I mean, I know that the oral arguments have been online. I’ve done a few of those in the Court of Appeals. But how has your chambers worked differently during all of this?
Justice Bethel: Well, ours has changed dramatically. We already had a little bit of a head start perhaps on some of the chambers that have metro Atlanta resident judges in this respect. When my calendar had allowed at pre-COVID, I would tend to try and work remotely a day and maybe sometimes two days a week, depending on sort of what the calendar flow was. So my folks, we’re used to us exchanging documents electronically. And of course, this was before anybody knew, or at least me knew the name Zoom. So phone conferences are not, you know, digital face conferences. So we had a little bit of a head start, sort of we knew the routine and when we passed this back and forth over perhaps some of the Atlanta-based chambers where, you know, the judges are physically in the building five and sometimes more than five days a week. But we all have children, I mean, in my chambers, everyone has school-aged children. And so, early on, I made the decision that we would maximize remote work for my team. That is to say, if we could do it remotely, we would because we were trying to not spread among ourselves. And so we went to circulating everything digitally, no paperwork. And I, of course, had been…and what was a sort of study area downstairs in my basement has become closer to an office. It’s not, but it’s certainly a space where I’m more comfortable and I’ve got everything set up and all that. I’ve upgraded my Wi-Fi home so that all my connectivity was a little more reliable when we do things like arguments.
But my staff has been doing a lot of remote work. We schedule when people are coming in around one another so as to try and limit or minimize the number of folks who were there. And I think you’re right, Scott, that that stalling, we actually have already started some conversations within my chambers. And then other members of the court are having those same conversations. And we will have them collectively about sort of, “Okay, what what is the way back? And what does that look like in post-pandemic world?” And I think you’re right to say, you know, the pandemic is going…COVID-19 is not going anywhere. It’s gonna be part of global experience. I think, you know, in perpetuity, it’s not going to be eradicated. It’s going to be ultimately part of the health things that we face. But hopefully, it’ll just be less prevalent and less deadly as we develop immunity as people.
But in any event, my folks have been working primarily remotely. We Zoom with one another. We call. I’m a texter. We email. And so my team has responded very well. We all miss each other, and I’m looking forward to seeing them all on a more regular basis. But we’ve been able to continue our workflow relatively uninterrupted. And that’s the big distinction, I think, between our work and the work on like a trial court because, as you know, with jury trials and just in-person, you know, things that have to be done physically in person or at least historically had to be done physically in person, that’s very disruptive. And the idea of bringing in jurors and bringing in witnesses is something that we don’t face in our courts. We’ve been able to adapt very easily. And thankfully, before I came on the court, the court had pretty much migrated to 100% digital records. So when we get records from our clerks of court across the state, in our court, they’re digital. And so as long as I can log onto the internet, I can access my work and my work product from more or less anywhere.
Scott: So I appeared for my first pre-trial calendar in anticipation of jury trial starting back up last week. And it was absolutely great to be back and working on especially setting a jury trial on a matter I’m working on in August. And I’m very excited to be in front of another jury again because it’s been a very long time due to the pandemic. So I’m excited that jury trials are starting back up. I’ve really enjoyed habeas corpus hearings being done via Zoom and WebEx. I think that stuff has worked great. I’ve enjoyed routine motions that are not necessarily evidentiary motions. But those some evidentiary motions, I’ve enjoyed those being online. I’ve enjoyed not having to wake up in Griffin, Georgia, at 5:00 in the mornings that I can drive to Blairsville to say, “Judge, hey, we’re ready for trial.” I mean, I really hope that we keep some of the Zoom and WebEx for non-essential things. I think it seems to have made the court work better. What do you foresee will come next? Do you think that we’ll keep some of this online portion of court?
Justice Bethel: Well, I certainly hope so. I think the court system got a crash course in digital connectivity. We probably had a lot of members in the judiciary for whom there was some intimidation about the technology. It’s not how they grew up doing things. It’s not how they practice doing things. And so this was all new and fast and different. And like I said, people had to learn something on the fly. But having learned it, I do think that it creates opportunities. And I can’t imagine that, you know, if you’re a trial court and the ability to manage your docket and move things, in my mind, more expeditiously doesn’t pose real appeal, doesn’t have real appeal for trial courts. And so I do think, you know, to your point, if you’ve got an evidentiary issue, if you’ve got a discovery dispute that it’s not going to involve us calling witnesses, calendar calls, and first appearances and those sorts of things seem to me to be very ripe for courts and judges to continue or at least have available the ability to do those things remotely. It saves time. It saves resources with the court’s time resource too. It saves all sorts of resources in the process. And it also, I think, allows you to keep things moving because you can do…the court normally would have a calendar call and everybody shows up and it’s social hour at the courthouse and the judge comes in and, of course, he’s interrupted by somebody that walked in for emergency order or something like that and so they’re getting to the bench. And you know how court can just bog down unexpectedly.
Justice Bethel: And so you’ve got a lot of resources that are consumed. Whereas if everybody’s sitting in queue at their desk and they’re able to continue working, and when their matter is ready, they pop on and they get on and off with the judge, it helps the judge, it helps everybody. To me, it seems to be those sorts of things should be obvious. Certainly, jury trials and evidentiary hearings where there’s credibility determinations, where witnesses need to be present, those sorts things, those are different questions. I think, pardon the pun, the jury is still out on exactly how we’re going to look at those sorts of things on a go-forward basis. On our court, we haven’t had any formal conversation about this. But I think the capacity that we’ve shown…I am desperately ready to be back in court for oral argument, just the energy. It’s just better. There’s nothing wrong with remote oral argument. I think that works. I think we’ve been able to conduct our business in that respect. We get our questions. The parties and attorneys get their arguments made. But just the in-person prospect, to me, it just works better.
Scott: We build these big, beautiful, majestic courtrooms for a reason. And I think there’s something to the architecture of a courtroom. If you’re going to adjudicate a weighty matter, I do…I mean, you know, I’ve done some arguments via Zoom in the past year, and I get nervous about everything I ever do in court. I mean, I think when you stop doing that, you probably should stop being a lawyer. But there’s a special level of nervousness or there’s sort of the majesty of being in…you know, you see it in federal court. You certainly see it in the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals. There’s something about being in the chamber that I think is part of what you’re doing. And I think we missed that when we’re online.
Justice Bethel: Yeah, I agree. And it’s just feels a little less connected. But having said that, I think that we may…again, I can’t speak for the court at all, but we may see a future where, let’s say it’s a criminal case that comes up out of…
Scott: South Georgia.
Justice Bethel: Lowndes County, Valdosta, the counsel is down there, and the DA’s office is down, and they say, “Could we do this remotely, instead of all driving up I-75 250-some odd miles to Atlanta and then turn around and drive back?” I suspect that we’ll at least entertain that possibility and figure out maybe some ways to make those sorts of options available, if everybody consents.
Scott: Right. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to make a DA and a public defender drive that far. You know, I mean, it seems like it’s a good use of resources if they could just get them to be on their computer.
Justice Bethel: It’s a long trek.
Scott: Right. Right. Well, listen, you’ve given me a well over an hour of your time. And I’m honored and much appreciative. And I really want to thank you for being on the podcast. And, you know, I think this came out of you speaking to our appellate class at Mercer Law School. And there are some things you said there, particularly the be-a-bargain or get-a-bargain distinction that I wanted to share with my audience further. So I really want to thank you for coming on. Is there any final thoughts or any concluding remarks you’d like to say to the people who are listening?
Justice Bethel: Well, a couple of quick hitters and one I should have led at the beginning, and that is to say thank you for having me and beyond that, thank you for doing your podcast. I’ve caught some of the podcasts and enjoyed it. Beyond that, I appreciate thoughtful attorneys and people who care about sort of the state of practice and the state of the law, doing this sort of thing, doing podcasts and helping to spread good news, good practices, thoughtful, challenging things. It’s important and it’s a great medium I think to do that as somebody who spends a little time in the car between Atlanta and Dalton, podcasts are a part of my life. And so I appreciate you doing it and having me do it. And I don’t really think I have anything to offer in conclusion beyond simply saying that I know your audience is somewhat Georgia-centric or I would imagine that it was.
Justice Bethel: And I really take seriously the privilege of working for Georgians. And while there’s a lot of things judges can’t talk about, a lot of things we can’t comment on, I do know that I still work for the people and the public. And so I sort of want to always reiterate that if I can be of service and ethically do so, I hope people will reach out to me. I try to be available as I can and get back to people as quickly as I can. So if you wanted to come see…once we sort of clear the building, in the post-pandemic land for physical tours, if you wanted to come see your state judicial building, I’d be happy to host you or arrange for you to come see it because at the end of the day, we are your employees.
Scott: Well, thank you so much for being on, Justice Bethel.
Justice Bethel: Yes, sir, my pleasure. Thanks, Scott.
Scott: Thanks for listening to the “Advocates Key.” For more information and content like this, including a transcript of this episode, be sure to visit scottkeylaw.com, and please rate, review, and subscribe to this show wherever you get your audio content.