CONYERS -- After 14 years as a practicing attorney with a host of high-profile cases on her resume, Phinia Aten is ready to take her career to the next plateau with her candidacy for chief judge of Rockdale County's Magistrate Court.
Aten, a Democrat, will oppose Republican incumbent Magistrate Judge Clarence "Rudy" Horne Jr., in November's General Election.
Calling Magistrate Court the "gateway for the judicial system," Aten said she wants to take her many years of experience -- in Rockdale County and throughout the state -- to make operations more efficient and fair and to provide citizens with education about the court.
"It's the first level of court for all criminal cases and it is where many civil matters are resolved," said Aten, who announced her candidacy last November. "I thought it could be an opportunity for me to really impact the law and help people have a better appreciation of our legal system working in Magistrate Court."
Magistrate Court is a court of inquiry with the primary responsibility to determine the sufficiency of evidence in criminal cases, along with applications and issuance of arrest and search warrants. It is also the court of first appearance and committal hearings in criminal cases. The court hears civil claims and provides eviction notices, distress warrants, ordinance violations, issuance of bad-check citations and holds misdemeanor bad-check warrant hearings.
Aten said that during her campaign, concerns have been expressed to her about the court's increasing budget and its reliance on part-time judges. She said that, if elected, she won't do away with part-time jurists but she'll spend more time on the bench, saying that more litigants should be able to present their cases before the person they elected.
"One issue I've been hearing a lot of complaints about is the Magistrate Court budget," said Aten, who earned her law degree from Tulane University in New Orleans. "It has been constantly expanding over the last several years, and my understanding is it has been attributed to a greater use of part-time judges, not because the volume of the caseload has been increasing dramatically, but because Judge Horne has not been presiding over as many cases as he should.
"The volume is too heavy in Magistrate Court to not use part-time judges; however, I do intend to sit on the bench many more hours than Judge Horne, as well as offer litigants the opportunity to have me personally preside over (their) cases. Chief magistrate is the only elected judge in the magistrate system -- the other judges are by appointment. I'm offering more accountability to the community by offering to hear their case personally -- to be heard by the judge they elected."
Pointing out that many citizens appear in Magistrate Court without benefit of attorneys, Aten added that she's also received feedback on the subject of fairness, and says that she wants to provide information to litigants that will help them better understand the process and outcome of their cases.
"I can resolve that issue by giving people education on the front end of what a judge can fairly consider," said Aten, who runs the Atlanta-based firm Phinia Aten and Associates. "A lot of times people want to raise issues that aren't relevant to the matter a judge needs to decide ... Giving some front-end training and then giving an explanation upon rendering a decision in court can go a long way to helping people understand what goes on in Magistrate Court.
"I'm big on community outreach, and Magistrate Court is the people's court. A lot of people in Magistrate Court represent themselves. (The court) should offer more information to these litigants about how court works so we can move those cases more efficiently and people have a better idea about what the judge is looking for in terms of rendering a just decision."
Named an Outstanding Citizen by the Georgia Secretary of State and the 2011 recipient of the Luminary Leadership Business Award from the local chapter of the Georgia Federation of Democratic Women, Aten said she's enjoyed her first run for elected office and she feels more than capable for the office.
"Judge Horne hasn't had much in the way of opposition for most of his tenure and I don't know if that's necessarily because of the quality of his performance," she said. "I'm at that point in my career where I've garnered the respect of so many of my legal colleagues, the community and other jurists that I feel completely confident running for this office. I feel very well qualified to take on this task."
Aten is president and a charter member of the New-Rock Legal Society and is a member of the Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys, the Georgia Association of Black Women Attorneys, the Rockdale County Bar Association, the Lawyers Club of Atlanta and Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts.