Q & A with Judge Sonja Brown, candidate for Cobb Superior Court judgeship

Sonja Brown smiling, arms crossedSonja Brown (photo provided by Sonja Brown)

By Arielle Robinson

Monday afternoon, the Courier spoke over the phone with Cobb Magistrate Judge Sonja Brown, who hopes to fill the open Superior Court judgeship seat.

Brown is one of several candidates who have qualified in the race for the Tuesday, May 24 nonpartisan general election.

The election is happening because current Superior Court Judge Robert Flournoy III announced that he will retire after 2022.

Click here to see our interviews with other candidates.

For anyone who wonders what the Superior Court does and why it matters, please refer to Georgia’s Superior Courts website, which says:

“The Superior Courts of Georgia is a court of general jurisdiction handling both civil and criminal law actions. Superior Court Judges preside over cases involving misdemeanors, contract disputes, premises liability, and various other actions. In addition, the Superior Court has exclusive equity jurisdiction over all cases of divorce, title to land, and felonies involving jury trials, including death penalty cases.”

The race is nonpartisan.

Talk about your background. Who are you and why did you decide to run for Superior Court judge?

Brown: “My name is Judge Sonja N. Brown and I currently serve as a Magistrate Court judge here in Cobb County. I have been living in Cobb County for almost 27 years now and I’ve been in the City of Kennesaw for almost 22 years. And so I’ve been here in Cobb for quite some time.

“I’m the super aunt, as I call it, a proud aunt of six amazing, little human beings. Three of them live here in Cobb County and they attend public school here in Cobb County. I have one high schooler, two elementary school students, one is almost in middle school. My other three nieces and nephews live in neighboring Cherokee County and I have a middle schooler, an elementary schooler, and 34 days away from having our first college graduate, so that is a little bit about me and my immediate family.

“Professionally, I’ve been a Cobb County Magistrate Court judge for just over a year, about 15 months. I was appointed and took office on January 1 of 2021, and so I’ve had an opportunity to serve in this capacity now doing some amazing things as part of this bench.

“I have a 25+ year professional career and 17 of those years I’ve spent practicing law. I had a career working in business prior to that and went back to law school. So that’s 17 and a half years as an attorney, 14 of those years I’ve spent as a prosecutor in three large prosecutor’s offices here in metro Atlanta, where I served in different capacities from a community prosecutor, as well as the director of the victim-witness program.

“I prosecuted crimes against women and children, which most people probably would recognize as the Special Victims Unit. I prosecuted sexual assault, physical abuse of women and children, and so I’ve prosecuted some of the most egregious crimes that we’ve had or can see in our community.

“I’ve actually prosecuted cases in the very class of court, Superior Court, in which I am seeking to serve as a Superior Court judge. I also served outside of the DA’s office in the solicitor’s office, where I was a deputy chief assistant solicitor general over the Special Victims Unit, where we prosecuted high-risk domestic violence cases as well as other misdemeanor sexual assault cases against women and children.

“In my capacity as a deputy chief, I also supervised what we call the diversion and community alternative program. That’s where we had accountability courts and pretrial diversion. I oversaw the attorneys that worked in the misdemeanor mental health court, in the DUI court, as well as in the domestic violence pretrial intervention.

“I’ve sort of run the gamut as a prosecutor because as a community prosecutor, I bridged the prosecutor’s office, law enforcement, elected officials, community organizations, and the community themselves. I prosecuted cases that were of particular interest to the community, and again, prosecuted everything from misdemeanors all the way to child abuse, rape, sexual battery, those types of cases.

“Previous to that, I worked in-house at a company, so I have a business background as well, having worked as a staff counsel at a local technology company. I worked on negotiating contracts, worked with clients, and I also supported our human resources department with the employment aspect. So I also have the civil side of it as well as the criminal side, in addition to what I’m doing as a judge right now.

“As a Magistrate Court judge, I hear everything from probable cause cases to bond hearings, temporary protective orders, oversee our TPO compliance. I’m also one of the judges that presides over our early intervention court, which is a court that’s designed to create early-stage case management for nonviolent drug offenses, and hopefully get those who have been charged with these nonviolent drug offenses into opportunities for treatment earlier, such as pretrial diversion or accountability court.

“So I preside over those hearings as well. I preside over arraignments, jury trial calendars, motions, and in addition to serving as an assistant Superior Court judge, I’ve also sat for judges over their arraignment calendars as well.

“The second part you ask is why I want to be a Superior Court judge. I think for me, it’s sort of the natural step. My whole life has been built on service. As a judge, with the skill set, the talents, and gifts that I have — I often say that I cannot be an educator in our community, I don’t have that skill set, I can’t be a counselor, I can’t be a doctor — and so for me, the highest way that I feel that I can give back to our community is by serving in this capacity as a judge.

“I already have the title as a judge. I’m not speaking of titles by any means — I want to do the work — the hard work that it takes to create an impact in our community. And it’s a job that I take very, very seriously. It is a difficult job. These are things that keep you up at night because you’re balancing your community’s needs, the safety of your community. You’re balancing when you have a defendant before you.

“As a Superior Court judge, I will be making decisions about families, when it comes to who will have custody over children, when it comes to business whether there is cause for a business if they’re being sued and making a determination how that case will be disposed of.

“Being a judge for me is all about service, how can I best serve my community with what skills, what talents, what gifts I have? It’s a blessing and a privilege for me to be able to serve in this capacity. I want to be able to do that on a greater scale, to have an even greater impact on the community that I love and have called home for almost 25 years now.

Can you talk about what your campaign platform is? What principles are you running on and what would that tangibly look like?

“I think my main platform, I’ll say that it will be justice. The three words that I would describe my campaign can be summed up as service, compassion, and justice. It means that I am committed to serving the citizens of Cobb County with integrity, honesty, honor, and fidelity to the Constitution and the laws of Georgia.

“I will serve with compassion, which means that every single person that comes before me will be treated fairly, they will be treated respectfully, they will be treated impartially, they will be treated without bias, and they will be treated with humanity — every single person. And I do that today, it’s not something that I’m going to do. It’s something that I already do.

“For me, justice is balancing accountability with reconciliation. What I mean by that, is that we have to keep our community safe, and there are times when the most appropriate way to keep our community safe is by sentencing someone to prison. They’ve committed a crime against the community and there is not a punishment, there is accountability for the actions and that accountability might mean imprisonment.

“But I also want to balance that with reconciliation, meaning when there are opportunities for intervention, whether it’s pretrial diversion or accountability court, whether it’s drug court or mental health court, that if that is a suitable alternative, we have an opportunity for that person to go through the diversion or the accountability courts.

“So my platform is simply justice — service, compassion, justice, and letting the community know that the role that I serve as a judge means that I will be thoughtful and considerate in all matters that come before me, whether it’s civil, criminal, or domestic. I will work to seek justice with mercy in all cases.”

You touched upon it a bit in the previous question, but do you believe in restorative justice and if so, what does that look like to you?

“I think for me, again, it’s a balance of accountability and what does accountability look like and where we have an opportunity to reconcile someone. I say reconcile because there is a harm that has been committed against society, a harm that’s been committed against the community when someone comes before the court on a criminal side.

“So where we have an opportunity to reconcile people back into the community, meaning to give them opportunities for mental health, drug court, veterans court, or for a pretrial diversion program, so that we can get them healthy and get them whole so that they can become contributing members of our community, contributing members of our society, [I support that].

“There is definitely a space and a place for that when it fits the circumstances and each case is looked upon individually, and fairly, and impartially, and without bias. And again, where there’s an opportunity to hold someone accountable through those avenues, I definitely think that is something that should be done. It’s for the betterment not just for the person who is having the opportunity to be reconciled, but it does well for the community as well.”

In the press release your campaign sent out, it mentions that you, during your time as the Director of Community Affairs/Deputy Chief Assistant District Attorney at the DeKalb DA, created the Crime Strategies and Community Partnerships Unit, the first of its kind in Georgia. What is this unit and how do you think it has helped the larger community?

“The Crime Strategies and Community Partnerships Unit, when the DA took office in 2017, this was an idea that came to fruition. What the unit was created to do was to implement intelligence-driven prosecution strategies that focus on priority offenders and neighborhoods.

“What we were able to determine in partnership with the police department was that there was about 20 percent of offenders who were committing about 80 percent of the crimes in the county. What we did in partnership with the police department is focus on those priority areas, those hotspots where the crime was being driven by particular people, and then the neighborhoods and so we focus on that.

“What we did is we created the unit with the attorneys as well as an investigator and a data analyst — there was an analyst that was taking data, so we weren’t just picking numbers or trying to figure out where crime was happening — we took the numbers, we had the statistics. We also were able to see who was connected to whom, so there were times where you may have a group in one area and they may be connected to another group but there was nothing on the surface that would show you that.

“So using data, pulling reports, and seeing how many times one person may have been mentioned in another report with somebody else, we were able to connect those data points. We were able to focus in partnership, again, with law enforcement on those areas and on those persons.

“Also, what my team did is that we would get alerts from the police department letting us know when somebody, one of the priority offenders — because we had a list based on the data — if they were arrested. So even if they weren’t arrested in the county, they were arrested outside, we got the alert. And then we were able to prepare packets with information regarding bond, criminal history, and get that to the attorneys who would be doing the first appearance so they knew that this was a priority offender and that we needed to seek no bond or very high bond or to hold that person. And so it was very, very focused.

“But in addition to that, the unit served as a primary liaison between the community and the DA’s offices, so we work to build partnerships and foster collaborative relationships with the local community. A lot of times we would even get information from the community members about who in the neighborhood was committing crime, or give us information or tips that police could use to investigate. We worked really closely, we monitored the impact of the work that we did. It was specifically driven to improve the community while reducing crime.”

You have plenty of experience working with women and children who have faced sexual and domestic violence. Despite movements in recent years that have brought attention to violence against women and children, statistics show that many sexual assault cases still go unreported and furthermore, the majority of perpetrators of sexual violence do not go to jail or prison. Some victims are faced with the possibility of police and others in the criminal justice system not believing their stories. How do you think judges could play a role in better supporting women and children who face abuse?

“Oh, that’s an excellent question because obviously, a judge is a neutral party in it, right? I have that experience. I think one of the things that I do right now as a judge and hearing temporary protective orders, where appropriate, again, you listen to all the evidence that comes forward. For me as a judge, which means when I come into a case — and I say this to everybody that comes before me — the scales are not tipped, they’re equal.

“There’s a scale that’s holding evidence on one side and a scale that’s holding evidence on the other side and I listen very intently and carefully. But more so than that is getting the education of understanding the cycle of violence and understanding what domestic violence or family violence is so that when you’re hearing the evidence, you are hearing it but you have an understanding of what domestic violence is.

“I think education, judges being educated about it, and also ensuring that our attorneys — whether it’s prosecutors or defense attorneys — they have an education as well when they’re presenting the cases to the judges. And for a judge to be again, a neutral party in hearing the evidence and ruling on the evidence — taking your bias out, how you may feel either way, one or the other.

“I think there are opportunities for judicial engagement in finding community responses to domestic violence, and that’s one thing as well that I would love to explore as a member of the Superior Court — how I can work with the community, work with the bar, the prosecution and the defense, work with our community partners and see how we can come to what I call a coordinated community response. How can everybody that’s a part of the community work to end the violence, specifically in this instance domestic violence in the community? It takes all the partners and the stakeholders to do that.”

What do you think are some of the root causes that lead to a person committing a crime and continually winding back up in the court system?

“There is a myriad of answers to that because each case [differs]. There are cases where there may be mental illness, where there may be drug addiction, there may be homelessness. On the misdemeanor side, let’s say for example, depending on what the offense is — it could be that somebody is doing something to take care of a need if they are homeless.

“I think there is a myriad of problems. They’re problems that could stem from someone’s experience personally and sometimes there are people that commit crimes out of opportunity. So, I think it’s difficult to narrow in on just one issue or a few things to say that’s the root cause because I think there are different things that contribute to different individuals committing crimes in our community.

“[This] is why I think it’s extremely important for a judge to be fair, to leave your biases at the door, to come in and be impartial and take every single case that comes before you — the facts that are before you, the evidence that is before you, the law that is before you — and look at that, because in one case, there could be the same offense committed but they are very different facts with very different offenders.

“You’ve got to be able to separate it because what could be a cause in one offense may not be the cause in the other, and so again, I think it’s very important for a judge to remain as unbiased, as fair, and as impartial as possible so we can look at the facts of this case because there may be a remedy that you can use.

“Again, accountability is always the underlying issue. There may be a case where prison time is what’s appropriate and another case where accountability court or diversion is appropriate. I hate to keep falling back to that, but again, [we must look at] individual cases with individual facts, individual evidence, the law that applies specifically to those facts, and then treat the person before you based on what you have before you.”

In general, do you think the court system as it stands right now is fair and compassionate to folks, especially to folks from working-class backgrounds and people of color? Why or why not? If you don’t think it’s fair, how do you work to improve things?

“I will say that the Cobb County Judicial Circuit is doing a very good job to be the court that is compassionate towards everyone that comes before us and [creating] a court in a judicial system that is fair and impartial to everybody. All of our judges here, including me, every single judge on every class of court in Cobb County underwent not one but two implicit bias trainings — one last year, and one this year. Our Chief Judge Rob Leonard had every single judge participate in that.

“Why is that important? That is important because we want to ensure that when people come to Cobb County they know that they’re treated fairly, they know they’re treated without bias. And it’s important that we all recognize that we do have biases, right? Something as simple as if you’re buying ice cream and you have two children and one is your child and one is another child, you don’t know you have a bias towards your own child, right?

“The important thing is recognizing that but not acting out of your bias. So every single judge on every class of court — Magistrate, Juvenile, Probate, State, and Superior Court — underwent the implicit bias training once in 2021 and then again in 2022. It’s only April, we’ve already done that training.

“There will always be room for improvement and ensuring that every single citizen that comes before the court is treated fairly, they’re treated impartially. But I do believe that in Cobb County, we are looking at those gaps where there may be gaps and figuring out how we can find ways to improve. I think that’s a major step in what we have done here in Cobb County by saying we’re going to step up. I want you to know, we are the only circuit in the state that every single judge in every single class of court has undergone that training.”

Do you think the court system could improve its transparency? If yes, how so?

“I do believe that the Cobb County Judicial Circuit is open. My court for example is 24 hours a day, seven days a week, even during the pandemic we were here. I think access would be a term that I would for me rather than the term transparency. I would say that the access that we have seen through the use of technology has made it more accessible to some people because we know that everybody can’t get here to see court, but the court is always open.

“Anybody can come into court on any given day unless there is a particularly closed session for some reason. Juvenile court, for example, is not open to the public and that is to protect the juveniles. That’s in the law so that’s not an open court. But where there is an open court, our current courts are always open for anybody to come in.

“I think access, more people I think have been able to see it through being able to log on via WebEx or Zoom. It’s also I think helped to cut down on disrupting the lives of everyday citizens. If you’re litigating a case, you may not have to take the day off from work to come spend the day at court because you can log in for your particular hearing. I do believe that where we can continue to utilize technology we should for those very reasons, it gives people more access — litigants as well as attorneys, because attorneys could have court in Cobb County in the morning and then have court in Hall County in the afternoon.

“So maybe they’re able to multitask and stay in one place and then log on and so that also helps to cut down on time. One thing that I am very big on is ensuring that the attorneys that come before me, that their time is valuable and that I utilize the time that I have with them in court as best as I can. If we can help to give access as well as technology to our attorneys as well, I think that’s also a good thing — where the law allows for it, because it’s not allowed in every single situation but where it is allowed or where there is consent by the parties. I think that the access that technology gives is a good thing for us.”

You have experience as an assisting judge for Cobb’s Superior Court. How do you think this prepares you, more than any other candidate, to become a Superior Court judge? Essentially, what is something new you can bring to the bench?

“Well, I think I am uniquely qualified. As I am sitting, I’m doing the job right now. I’m doing the work of a judge. Of course, there are things that Superior Court is doing that I am not doing and there will be a learning curve as well coming on to the Superior Court bench. But from day one, I will be ready.

“I have the experience right now as a sitting judge, I understand the hard decisions that have to be made. I understand the respect that needs to be shown to those who come before the court, whether it’s an attorney, whether it’s a victim, a defendant, or a litigant. I am doing the work today, as it is. I’m hearing pretrial and bond revocation hearings, I’m hearing probable cause for temporary protective orders, doing arraignments, I’m doing the motions. So being a judge, I’m ready to go from day one.

“Everyone’s going to have a learning curve but I have a smaller learning curve because I don’t have to learn how to be a judge. Being a lawyer is very different than being a judge and I had to learn that when I first came on the bench. I would have to learn the substantive stuff for the areas in which I have not worked before.

“But I’ve also practiced before Superior Court judges. I’ve picked juries, I’ve tried cases in the very class of court again, in which I am seeking to serve, so I know what it is to be before a Superior Court judge. I know what it is to stand before a jury. I know what it is to represent the community in court. I know what it is to work with another attorney to come to a disposition and a decision concerning the defendant, while making sure that we are balancing the safety of the community. I’ve done that job. And that is what those appearing before me would have to do.

“I understand what it takes to do the job. There’s also business cases that can come before [me] — I’ve worked in business, I’ve negotiated contracts, I’ve represented my company. I’m uniquely qualified with all of the skills that I have to serve as the next Superior Court judge.”

Anything else not mentioned here you would like for voters to know about you and/or your campaign?

“I’d love the voters to visit my website at www.judgesonjabrown.com. But I think what I would love the voters to know is that I am here to serve the people of Cobb County. I am a servant at heart, that is what I do.

“I serve on the Tommy Nobis Center board, which is right here in our community, right here in Cobb County. I’m a member of my sorority and I serve right here in my community. I’m a member of the bar association, I’ve been a leader in bar associations, I’ve served as the president of the Georgia Association of Black Women Attorneys, I volunteer, I give my time to the community because being a judge, again, is not just a job. It is for me a calling and a part of that calling and the privilege that I get to do as the job of being a judge is serving my community.

“Being a judge is an extension of service for me. I am someone who’s in the community. I work in the community, I love this community. I love Cobb County, it is absolutely the best place to live, work, and play. I want the voters to know that I am here to be a community service.

“And again, the best way that I feel that I can serve the community, in addition to my bar service, in addition to my organizational service, is by serving as a judge to ensure that I am working with every stakeholder, with the other judges — we have an amazing bench here — working with the attorneys, and working with the community so that we all can work to keep Cobb safe.”

To learn more about Brown and her campaign, you can visit her website.