Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Gwinnett County's newly appointed chiefs of State, Magistrate, and Superior courts are all women judges, Pam South, left, Kristina Blum, center, and Melodie Snell Conner, right. The three judges combine for over 35 years of experience on the bench.
LAWRENCEVILLE -- When Melodie Snell Conner was in law school at the University of Georgia, women comprised nearly half of her class.
But when she returned to her hometown in 1986 to begin her practice, she found the old boys club was alive and well.
Over the years, though, the opportunities have opened up on the Gwinnett County bench.
In fact, this month, a trio of women -- Conner, Pam South and Kristina Blum -- have been appointed as the chief judges of Gwinnett's Superior, State and Magistrate courts.
Look down, ladies. That glass ceiling is below you.Laying the groundworkFor Blum, the youngest of the three at 43, gender has never been an issue.
"Maybe I was too naive to think about it," Blum said, as the women discussed their experiences last week. "I just thought I would work hard and keep my nose to the grindstone and it would be enough."
But Conner and South remember a time when every judge in Gwinnett was a white man.
Only a few years after beginning to practice law, Conner, now 51, said people had taken notice of the gender gap.
There was no discrimination, she said, but "the bench does not reflect the county."
In 1989, South took a job with the Gwinnett district attorney's office, and she said the prosecutors were pretty progressive.
"I never felt a distinction in that DA's office," she said. "You were a lawyer first."
Women were gaining in numbers in the Gwinnett Bar Association, and a group began meeting for lunches to talk about how to achieve equality.
When a judgeship opened up, Conner recalled the group talking about getting behind one woman to try to push for an appointment.
"We talked about being a united front," she said. "There was a concentrated effort among the women in Gwinnett."
There began Conner's long string of firsts. Along with Valeria Head, she was the first woman appointed to the full-time bench, joining the Magistrate Court in 1993.
Later that year, she was appointed as the first female State Court judge in Gwinnett. She was the first to join the highest court bench in the county, Superior Court, in 1998.
"Judge Conner and Judge South laid a lot of the groundwork," Blum said.
Known among the legal community for their trial experience and tenacity, it wasn't all about their gender.
"Gwinnett is a real county of opportunity," said South, 56. "I do think you can work hard in this county and move forward."Lady LibertyNow that the gender gap has been bridged, many in the legal community are turning their eyes toward adding to the racial make-up of the bench.
"We are cognizant of the fact that the bench does not have a large amount of minorities," Conner acknowledged, adding that the change seems to be taking the same path it did for women.
In recent years, the number of minorities among the bar association has grown and the appointments have begun, first with Judge Robert Walker in 2007 to the Magistrate Court bench and then with Rodney Harris joining the Recorders Court.
"To be on the bench, first you have to earn your stripes in the courtroom," Conner said, repeating the mantra she learned before she earned her robe. "I believe in equal opportunity under the law, but I'm not for giving people a post just because they are a minority."
South said the numbers are on the rise.
"Just as it did for women, it's going to change," she said.
"The public needs to look at the judiciary and say with confidence, 'There is somebody like me,'" Conner added. "They need to have faith in the judicial system."
As proud as she is about helping to break open the glass ceiling in Gwinnett, Conner said she hopes it is only a part of her legacy.
"I hope people look at me now and judge me for being a judge," she said. "That's what the law strives to be. That's why Lady Liberty is blindfolded."
While all three women said their gender has done as much to shape their perspective as any other characteristic, like upbringing, education and experience, they said there is little difference in their courtrooms.
"I think the women's offices are a little prettier," Blum said with a laugh.