ROSWELL, Ga. – Roswell Municipal Court Judge Maurice Hilliard is calling it quits after 32 years on the bench dispensing his unique brand of justice. He has been called by both detractors and friends as acerbic and irascible outside the courtroom.
Sitting on the bench, he was fair and dispassionate, and attorneys said they knew the case would be tried on the law. But Hilliard said the time had come to step down.
“It was just time to go,” he said.
After practicing law for 19 years, Hilliard served one year as Roswell’s solicitor and then ran for Municipal Court judge in 1980. He won that handily and never looked back.
“At the time, I had been the first full-time lawyer in Roswell. I guess I knew a lot of people. I beat the incumbent, and he didn’t come back to finish out his term,” Hilliard recalled.
Hilliard has a little more than two years left on his current term, but there should be time to get the seat on this year’s ballot in November.
“It was not a sudden decision. It was something that had been building for quite a while. I guess I just burned out, and was at a point where I was under a lot of stress,” he said. “For 30 years, it was a wonderful place to work, and I was blessed to have three of the best prosecuting attorneys you could ever wish for.”
Hilliard said Roswell had a model court that was admired across the state of Georgia. But that had changed in the last three years.
“For 30 years, I felt like we were making difference, helping some young people, we’re doing something for the community. For the last three years, I felt like an ex officio tax collector,” he said.
Asked what changed, Hilliard declined to go into details.
“The city decided to take a different approach,” he said. “The city hired a city solicitor from Cobb County. She had a different idea how things should go, and it hasn’t worked out as far as I was concerned. It got to the point where anyone could have put on a robe and sent them next door to pay X number of dollars.”
Hilliard said he saw the job as an opportunity to help people, whether that was giving young people an opportunity to get into rehab or getting mothers and fathers who “couldn’t get along” into anger management counseling.
“As long as I was able to do that and do some good, I was happy. When that ceased, I ceased to feel the need to tilt at windmills,” Hilliard said.
The judge said he wanted to leave now so that a new election for the unexpired term could be conducted. He said he did not want the City Council to be tempted to make the position of municipal judge appointive.
“I think the municipal judge has to be that third party between the city and those who stand before its court. People need to know they have a fair arbiter, and I don’t know that you can absolutely say that when the judge is beholden to seven people for his job,” Hilliard said.
Hilliard had a reputation and a habit of striking down city statutes he found vague or simply out of order.
Asked his thoughts on Hilliard’s career, Mayor Jere Wood replied as many would when asked that.
“The first thing is Maurice has been the judge for almost half my lifetime, which was considerable,” Wood said. “He’s had a distinguished career and been a model for other judges.”
Hilliard has been exemplary in handling young offenders, and ran his court with decorum, the mayor said.
“He’s been a good judge,” Wood said.
Asked about the conflict that Hilliard alluded to, Wood said that Hilliard has always had an independent office.
“The judge has never been a tax collector. And his policy on fines and penalties are not directed by the council, but are solely determined by him. He has never received pressure from this mayor or this council to raise revenues,” Wood said.
It was clear the judge and the solicitor did not “see eye to eye,” but every plea submitted by the solicitor has to be accepted by the judge, the mayor said.
As to when the new election date will be set, that has not been discussed by council. Wood did let council know by special called meeting that Hilliard resigned.
“But when to call the special election has not come to council yet. We haven’t reached that point yet, so I couldn’t tell you whether it will be in November or not. It will be discussed in the upcoming weeks,” Wood said.
“I think the council will deliberate whether it is appropriate to continue with an elected judge or to go with an appointed judge. I think that is an open question,” he said.