COVINGTON — Somewhere sitting within 6-by-8 feet doing hard time is someone who probably wishes Sammy Ozburn had followed his first dream and become a dentist. But dental’s loss was the law’s gain as Judge Samuel D. Ozburn wraps up a career that spans 25 years on the Superior Court bench in the Alcovy Judicial Circuit.
He is trying to retire. There was an announcement and a cake event where everyone stood 6 feet apart, but many days still find Ozburn presiding over cases in the courthouse.
“I can’t quite figure this retirement thing out,” he jokes. “My wife keeps saying, ‘I thought you were retired.’ I’m going to ease into it one of these days.”
Upon announcing his retirement, former prosecutor Layla Zon was appointed and sworn in to fill Ozburn’s judicial seat. But as he explains the situation, “It’s complicated.”
Gov. Brian Kemp signed an executive order making Ozburn a senior Superior Court judge, which means he can fill in as a judge anywhere in the state.
“It might be to handle a difficult case or if a judge were disqualified or to help catch up on their cases,” Ozburn said. “I’m also going to continue to handle the mental health court. It’s real important that that court be held every week. Judge Zon is in a transitional type state. She’s handling civil cases. She can’t be the judge in any cases with me because she was the prosecutor ... And on top of that, it takes training and experience handling an accountability court. It’s collaborative. It’s a different way to handle it.”
Actually known as the Resource Court, most people refer to it as mental health court or accountability court. Ozburn helped start the program for the Alcovy Judicial Circuit 10 years ago. The Alcovy Circuit includes both Newton and Walton counties.
“In practicing law and in becoming a judge in both civil and criminal cases, you would see mental illness and addiction involved,” he said. “You could send them to jail or tell them to go to counseling, but you could tell there was an underlying issue. They would be out and then come back. That issue would come back. The resource court allows us to address the root problem. They have to go to treatment and testing and stay in it at least a year and a half, but it works. And the beauty of it is it saves lives and money.”
The judge said it is a more efficient way to deal with an offender’s problems. He said it does not involve dangerous people such as convicted murderers or sex offenders, but people who can get to a point where they are stable and can go to work and live a life that does not find them in and out of jail.
“The success rate is pretty high,” Ozburn said. “… I told everybody I would continue to handle it until she (Zon) can take the reins. It’s complicated. They pretty much eliminated the funds (from the state budget) to pay mental health judges, but I said these people need to come before the court, be congratulated or straightened up. No matter how things work out, I’ll be there on Wednesdays when we talk about everybody and then in court on Thursdays. It is so rewarding to see those people come around. It is so rewarding.”
Those rewarding experiences that make a difference in the lives of people who have come before him in legal trouble are what he will miss most when he finally leaves his court duties, Ozburn said.
“I’ll miss the day-to-day encounters with people who have problems and need help,” he said. “Sometimes they need help they don’t want to receive. People usually come to court because of problems, and judges have to craft a solution within the law. It usually involves sad situations and bad situations. I will miss the adoption cases because it is a ray of light for judges.”
About 15 years ago, Ozburn began collecting small stuffed animals to give to children adopted through his court. He said he once had an adult come up to him to say Ozburn was the judge who did his adoption and he still had the toy duck the judge gave him that day.
“That means a lot to me,” Ozburn said. “I’ll miss that. And I’ll miss handling the cases that come up that need some type of resolution and hopefully help people in a positive way and steer them in a way of healing and restoration. I’ve had to impose the death penalty. I didn’t relish it, but it’s the law. Sometimes you have to do what you have to do.”
A native of Newborn, Ozburn is the son of the late Albert Ozburn, who was the mail carrier in his hometown for almost three decades, and Julia Polk Ozburn, a bookkeeper for a homebuilding company. Ozburn and his sister, Julianne Ozburn Schell, grew up going to Newborn United Methodist Church, where their daddy served as Sunday School superintendent.
Ozburn went to Mansfield Elementary School and Ficquett before attending Newton County High School and graduating in 1969. The future judge was president of the NCHS student body and played on the golf team and tennis team. He was in the Hi-Y Club and Key Club, where he served as an officer and was introduced to the local Kiwanis Club. Years later, Ozburn would become an active member of the Covington Kiwanis Club, serving as president in the early 1980s.
Following high school, he went to nearby Oxford College of Emory University for two years before going to the University of Georgia and majoring in finance and banking. He had a job waiting for him after college graduation at Newton Federal with the understanding that if he got accepted into law school, he would have to leave. And that is just what happened.
But before that, he seriously thought about becoming a dentist. A beloved family friend and local dentist encouraged him. The friend taught at Emory University’s Dental School and took Ozburn on a tour, introducing him to the professors there. Still in college, Ozburn began taking courses such as chemistry, vertebrate biology and quantitative analysis, which he would need for dental school. It made him realize dentistry was not the path for him. Actually, the way he puts it is he “wasn’t called to look in people’s mouths all day.”
After working a few months at Newton Federal, Ozburn received notice he was accepted into the next class for Mercer University’s School of Law. He moved to Macon and served as one of the editors of The Mercer Law Review before graduating in 1976.
Ozburn came back home, joined Don Ballard’s law firm, became a partner and in 1979, went out on his own and opened the first law office on the Covington Square that was street level.
It was during these days he recalls having one of his most memorable cases.
“I had a murder case you could have written a mini-series on,” he said. “It was absolutely true. It would have been a smash hit. I tried it in the 1980s and it involved the murder of a person (the defendant) was close to, and her father was a big drug dealer in another part of the state. There was a question as to whether one of his rivals had put out a hit on her. He was in protective service. They were brought to this area by the U.S. Marshals. It was a lot of drama and took about two to three weeks to try…There was no public defender then. You got appointed and you were expected to handle it. I handled speeding cases all the way up to murders and some that were tough, like child molestations ….”
Ozburn remembers that murder case captured the attention of the county and people would come to court to watch it or anxiously wait to read the newspaper accounts. He was the defense attorney and the young man accused of the murder was his client. The man was convicted and Ozburn handled his appeal, which ultimately went to the Supreme Court of Georgia.
He continued to practice law until 1995, when the late Georgia Gov. Zell Miller appointed Ozburn to serve as the Alcovy Circuit’s third judge. He would join Judges Marvin Sorrells and John Ott. Now, almost 25 years later, Ozburn is retiring after having been elected to six terms without opposition.
As he “eases into” retirement, as he calls it, the judge said he plans to enjoy playing more golf, supporting UGA football, volunteering with the Salvation Army and doing more at Eastridge Community Church, where he serves as elder and chairman of deacons and has been called “one of the backbones of the church.”
He studies the scriptures and is involved in a Friday morning prayer group that prays for the community. Ozburn prays each time before entering the courtroom and asks God to give him wisdom. He prays for the people whose lives and problems cross his path, and he writes thank you notes to members of the jury.
When asked what advice he might offer to parents and others to help keep them and their children out of trouble with the law, Ozburn said, “It all starts with the family.”
He said families need to be in church and the children need to see their parents putting a priority on worship. He said individuals need to have humility and center their lives on Christ.
“People don’t want to admit this, but it needs to be what shapes you,” he said. “Find yourself a good Bible-believing church and surround yourself with people of like mind … and I feel your chances of having a solid successful life are much greater.”
Ozburn and his wife, the former Rhonda Norman, also a native of Newton County, married in 1974. They are the parents of two sons. Britt Ozburn graduated from Berry College and holds a master’s degree in library and information sciences. He worked for a local library system before moving back to Rome where he works for the library system in Floyd County.
Son David Ozburn graduated from Mercer Law School and heads up the Ozburn Law Firm in his father’s old office on Monticello Street in Covington. He and his wife, Ashley, are the parents of three little girls.
“David doesn’t do criminal law,” Ozburn said. “He’s the county attorney for Jasper County and does a good bit of civil work, real estate, business law. He wants me to practice with him. I might eventually do that. Get a desk there. But I’ll cross that bridge when we get there.”