Cheers and applause erupted in the auditorium of the Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center on Thursday afternoon as Cobb County Judge Angela Brown helped Gwinnett County State Court Judge Ronda Colvin-Leary into her robe, draping the material over the woman’s shoulders.

As cameras flashed, Colvin-Leary, who stood proudly in front of her colleague, smiled, glancing down at her new attire.

“This represents putting on the robe of wisdom, putting on the robe of knowledge, putting on the robe of compassion,” Brown said, zipping up the robe. “I stand here as a baby judge from Magistrate Court in Cobb County, but you have all these judges here in Gwinnett County, you have statewide judges who are proud of you, and even though it’s just me in (front of you), there are thousands of judges behind me. With that, we confer this robe, this mantle of wisdom and compassion, upon you.”

Colvin-Leary’s swearing-in ceremony was a momentous occasion for the new judge, who is the first African-American to be elected to the State Court bench in the Gwinnett Circuit.

In achieving that, Colvin-Leary is also the first African-American candidate to be elected to a countywide Gwinnett seat, something Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners Chairwoman Charlotte Nash said was past due, though appropriate this year in particular.

“It is fitting that this historic moment is happening in our bicentennial year,” Nash said. “It’s a shame that it took 200 years, but we’re happy that it happened. I know that Judge Colvin-Leary is going to do a great job.”

Colvin-Leary, who is replacing retiring State Court Judge Joseph Iannazzone, has spent the last 17 years as an attorney, 11 of which have been at a private law practice in Gwinnett that focuses on criminal law, contract law, juvenile law and personal injury.

Since 2011, the judge, who lives in Snellville with her husband, Keith, and their two daughters, has served as Solicitor for the City of Winder. She is a former staff attorney for the city of Atlanta Municipal Court, a former Assistant Solicitor for DeKalb County and a former part-time adjunct professor for the University of Phoenix.

“I can’t begin to call the names of people (to thank),” Colvin-Leary said Thursday. “But I would be remiss if I didn’t at least thank my new family — my judicial family, my staff. They were Judge Iannazzone’s, but they will be my family now. Judge Iannazzone has left some huge shoes for me to fill and he has left his legacy, but I look forward to building and creating my own legacy with my new family.”

Part of that legacy, Colvin-Leary said Thursday, will include helping those with mental illness, something the judge emphasized during her campaign.

“In our legal system, there is a rise in the number of people suffering from mental illness, including our veterans,” she previously told the Daily Post. “Sometimes, the main reason a person may have committed and been charged with a criminal offense is because of the underlying fact that they are suffering, knowingly or unknowingly, from a mental illness. A main concern is how to adequately and properly address the core cause in an effort to treat the underlying problem.”

Colvin-Leary reiterated that notion Thursday.

“Gwinnett County has a large (number of people) with mental illness,” she said. “A lot of people aren’t aware of that, so I want to engage and talk to my constituents about (that). I am very aware of a lot of those issues and when we have people who are aware of that in our courts, I think you have better judgments and rules. I don’t take that lightly.”

Hopewell Baptist Church Bishop William Sheals said Colvin-Leary shouldn’t take her judgeship lightly, either.

“(It’s) the year of the woman and it’s time for the hand that rocks the cradle to rule the world,” Sheals said. “We have crossed the threshold of history in Gwinnett County. (Colvin-Leary) is the first African-American, female State Court judge in 200 years. We’ve crossed the threshold, and we’re part of this history-making today.”

Crime Reporter

Isabel is a crime and health reporter for the Gwinnett Daily Post. She graduated from Emory University in 2016 with a B.A. in international studies. She is originally from the Boston area.