Veronica Cope says TV shows like “Perry Mason” and “Matlock” were part of her attraction to the legal profession when she was just 8 — but she also says the real world around her was a bigger influence than the television courtroom dramas ever were.
Cope, who is joining Gwinnett County’s State Court bench as one of a handful of African-Americans in the county’s judiciary, said she saw people being mistreated in the legal system. That was the real reason why the 45-year-old mother set her mind on becoming a lawyer while she was still in elementary school.
“I saw a lot of injustices growing up and my goal at that time, I said I wanted to be able to help people who couldn’t help themselves, or be a voice for the voiceless,” Cope said. “I was honestly a big fan of ‘Matlock,’ ‘Perry Mason’ (and) that kind of thing, but seeing those injustices at such a young age really put in me a desire to want to practice law and I’ve been pushing toward that goal ever since.”
While Cope has been working as a lawyer for years, she took her involvement in the criminal justice system to a new level on Monday when she was sworn in as Gwinnett’s newest State Court judge. She is only the second African-American, following Judge Ronda Colvin Leary, who was elected in 2018, to serve on Gwinnett’s State Court bench.
Gwinnett also has one sitting Juvenile Court judge, one sitting Superior Court judge and one incoming Superior Court judge who are African-Americans. Cope said it is important for defendants, particularly African-Americans who may feel the criminal justice system is slanted against them because of the color of their skin, to see people of color among the judiciary.
“Representation does matter,” she told well-wishers at her swearing in ceremony. “It shouldn’t matter, but it does.”
The last two years in particular have seen the Gwinnett County judiciary become more diverse, going from no African-American elected judges — Tadia Whitner, who now serves on the Superior Court bench, was previously a Juvenile Court judge, but Juvenile Court judges are appointed — to now having at four them elected at various court levels in the county.
That is in addition to an appointed African-American Juvenile Court judge, the county’s first openly gay judge in Superior Court and its first Vietnamese-American judge in Juvenile Court.
“I think diversity of the bench is important because it gives people faith in the justice system,” Cope said. “It allows people to know that there is diversity of thought — not just diversity of race, but diversity of thought, diversity of ideas. We have different cultural backgrounds represented on the bench, and sometimes it does make a difference.
“I think, as I mentioned earlier (during the ceremony), sometimes if you walk into a courtroom or courthouse, and there’s nobody that looks like you, you might feel like you’re not going to get a fair trial or fair opportunity to be heard. You feel like you might not walk away with justice being served.”
Cope’s arrival on the State Court bench is something that was three years in the making, dating back to 2017, when she announced a run for a seat on the Superior Court bench that was open in 2018. She did not win that seat, but she told attendees at her swearing in that she feels like she wasn’t elected to that seat because God decided she was needed more on the State court bench than the one for Superior Court.
She even ended up running without opposition for the seat that she will hold.
“It’s a blessing,” she said after the ceremony. “I’m excited about serving in this capacity. I feel like it’s a part of my purpose, to serve the citizens of Gwinnett county as a judge. I think that all of my experience over the last 19 years have prepared to serve in State Court, so I’m just thrilled.”
But, Cope’s story is about more than the color of her skin, and her full story was highlighted during her swearing in.
A native of North Carolina, she talked about completing her education as a young mother and going on to become a lawyer, as well as how she looked up to her brother and developing a love of basketball because he played it.
Cope and other speakers at the ceremony also talked about her being a “double Tar Heel” — meaning she has two degrees from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill — and how she is a fan of the Dallas Cowboys.
She also talked about how she felt as if her mother, who passed away from pancreatic cancer in 2005, was with her at the ceremony.
“You can’t see her, but I can feel her,” Cope said afterward. “She gives me strength when I feel like I can’t go on, and I know that’s her influence on my life. I know people would often ask when I was running, ‘Howdo you do it? How are you everywhere at the same time?’ I know that it’s her spirit and it’s God moving me to my purpose, so I know that she’s with me.”
Her sons gathered around her as she was sworn in by the man she is replacing on the bench, State Court Judge John Doran Jr.
Doran heaped praise upon Cope before he administered the judicial oath to her.
“I was so privileged to meet Judge Cope after I came over here to work on State Court,” he said. “She practiced many cases in our division (as a lawyer) and she was always well-prepared, knew the law (and) had an excellent, excellent professional demeanor.
“But, there was something else about Judge Cope that I must mention: she was the kind of person, the kind of lawyer that had such a strong presence, such strong dignity in a courtroom that was characteristic of the very best trial lawyers.”