Whether it’s the first case on the docket or the 23rd, the questions are the same and so is the tone with which they’re asked.
Superior Court Judge Samuel D. Ozburn — a Newton County native still known by most here as “Sammy” — takes pains to ensure each defendant understands his rights, is satisfied with his counsel and knows just what is being agreed to in a hearing.
Ozburn is the longest serving of the Newton residents on the Alcovy Circuit bench. He’s known for his long legal career in his hometown and his service to his church and other civic organizations.
As a result, Ozburn is the 2018 Community Spirit Award winner. The Covington News plans to make this an annual award honoring a person who exemplifies the best of Newton County over a lifetime of service.
Ozburn, 66, is a graduate of Newton County High School and Oxford College of Emory University. But he didn’t always know a career in law was for him.
“As I was going through college, it did not really occur to me to practice law,” he said. “I had first thought about being a dentist.”
Dr. Johnny Maloney, a Covington dentist who has since died, took young Ozburn on a tour of the dental school at Emory University.
“But when I got to college and began to take vertebrate biology and chemistry and quantitative analysis and things like that, it kind of occurred to me that, you’ve got to go where your passion leads you and I didn’t want to look in people’s mouths all day,” Ozburn said.
“I know there’s a lot of money there for it, perhaps, but I did not feel called to do that.”
Instead he graduated with a Bachelor of Business Administration in banking and finance from the University of Georgia, then earned a law degree at Mercer University in 1976. While in Macon, he served as the administrative editor of the Mercer Law Review.
“There’s something about the mind of attorneys and analyzing data and organizing and so forth — it’s a different mind that I had that didn’t fit that. I always enjoyed interacting with people in the community in work and in general, and law lent itself to that more. I also felt it gave you more opportunities to help people.”
Ozburn first did that professionally when he came back to Covington to practice with Don Ballard, who then was a state senator. The firm was then known as Ballard, Thigpen & Griffith and now is Ballard, Stephenson & Waters and claims the title of the oldest continuously operating law firm in Newton County.
In private practice, Ozburn said he “always enjoyed representing kind of the underdog — people who were hurt.”
Ozburn viewed himself as “a counterpart to a family doctor here because I represented families” locally.
“If the daughter was in a divorce or someone got a traffic ticket or they needed wills or were buying land or whatever may come up, I would try to help them with that,” he recalled. “Not knowing what was going to come in the door at any given time was a little bit of a challenge, but I always enjoyed just helping people.
“I liked to represent David instead of Goliath, I guess is kind of the way that I looked at it.”
Ozburn remained in the Ballard firm until going out on his own in 1979. Through it all, he settled in to life in Newton County.
“I enjoyed it because both my wife and I were from Newton County,” he said. “Both our sons were still here. There are advantages and disadvantages, coming back to your hometown. I don’t know everybody now, but I knew everybody then. That helped a lot of times to get people to come to see you, but sometimes they didn’t come to see you because they knew you. It was kind of an interesting dynamic there.”
When Ozburn set out on his own, he became the first downtown attorney with an office on the first floor of buildings on the Covington square.
“Everybody else was up above the stores and it was hard for some of our older clients to walk up the steps,” he said. “I’d find myself in freezing cold talking to them in the window of their car, signing their will or a deed or whatever it may be.
“It’s evolved over time and we’ve got a lot more lawyers now. I remember when the county broke 20,000 and now it’s, what, 110,000? So, a lot of changes have gone on and by and large they’re very positive.”
Ozburn made a big career change more than 20 years ago when he left private practice to become a Superior Court judge in the Alcovy Circuit.
At the time, the Alcovy Circuit had just two Superior Court judges for Newton and Walton counties. Chief Judge Marvin Sorrells and Judge John Ott, both from Walton County, handled the entire case load and there was a need for a third judge. The state had approved a third judgeship, but a federal court challenge claiming violations of the 1965 Voting Rights Act across Georgia held up the majority of the 77 new positions from taking effect.
Once the case was settled, Gov. Zell Miller appointed Ozburn. The new judge was sworn in at the state Capitol on Dec. 20, 1995, to take the bench on New Year’s Day 1996.
“My boys were little then. It was in the House of Representatives chambers,” Ozburn recalled. “I was at that time the third judge. Now we’ve got five and that’s another reflection of the growth.”
At the time, it was a standing-room-only crowd in Atlanta to see Ozburn’s ascendance to the bench.
Miller called Ozburn “very well regarded as a professional leader,” according to The News at the time. The governor said Ozburn “clearly has the experience and it is obvious he has the intellect and the temperament to serve well and to serve wisely. Alcovy Circuit has a new judge and a good one.”
Allene Burton, who was about to take office as the mayor of Covington, said Ozburn was “one of the finest men I know.”
Ozburn said his parents taught him “by words and examples that a love of God and a love of family are a foundation for any success.” He pledged “diligence and fairness” to the people of Newton and Walton counties.
That commitment shows during a day in Ozburn’s courtroom, be it in Covington or Monroe. His expression rarely changes and each defendant making a plea gets asked the same questions as all who have come before that day.
It might make for a long session in the courtroom, but Ozburn wouldn’t have it any other way.
“It’s got to be that way,” he said. “I always look at it as, the judiciary — and I think George Washington agreed with this — has to be the firmest pillar of our government. It is crucial that the people believe in and trust the judiciary.
“When someone appears before me, I don’t cut corners with anybody whether it’s the president or a homeless person or whatever. Everybody has important rights and they deserve to be treated fairly no matter what they’ve done, because if the system operates perfectly, justice will be done.
“If you begin to cut corners, you’re going to compromise all of that. Even when I talk to jurors, I try to explain to them, this is why we do what we do, so that they’re not sitting back there looking, having no idea with no idea, why are we going through this procedure, why are they asking me these questions?”
Ozburn said it’s important to him that victims be heard and that even people convicted of a crime understand why a sentence is imposed.
“They may not agree with us, but I want them to at least understand this is why I’m doing it. Because you’ve violated your probation five times before, you’ve had these opportunities, and you’ve been given numerous chances, so this is why this sentence is much more severe than it’s been before.”
His legendary patience also works to ensure a defendant’s rights have been upheld and understood, which can be a crucial question on appeal.
“You can’t look back and somebody say, ‘Well, he never heard from me’ or ‘I never had my chance.’ If somebody’s going to give up a right, you don’t want them coming back later and saying, ‘Well, I didn’t understand.’ That’s why I go through all the questions and say, ‘Have you talked to your lawyer?’, ‘Have you had enough time?’, ‘Is this your decision?’ and so forth,” Ozburn said.
“All that goes into doing exactly what we’re required to do. It’s the kind of thing, I’m not holding myself up to be better or whatever, but not everybody has the constitution to do it because it can be very trying and it can be very emotional. You just have to train the way you think and the way that you act and the way that you react and so forth.
“All that’s very important, and I guess that goes into any job a person does. That takes time. I keep lawyers and the DA and the public defender longer in court than I perhaps should sometimes, but if I’m going to make a mistake, it’s going to be on the side of making sure every ‘t’ is crossed and every ‘i’ is dotted instead of cutting a corner and later coming back and finding out we didn’t do something we should have done.”
Helping Ozburn in those rough moments is the fact he’s girded by his faith and family. He and his wife, the former Rhonda Norman, have been married since 1974. They have two sons, Covington attorney David Ozburn, and DeKalb County Public Library senior librarian Britt Ozburn.
Sammy and Rhonda Ozburn have three granddaughters.
The Ozburns are members of Eastridge Community Church in Newton County, where he serves as the chairman of the Board of Elders and teachers Bible study classes.
Scott Moore, the senior pastor of Eastridge, said he looks up to Ozburn.
“For me as a pastor, Sammy embodies what you want to see happen in a church. He’s a great man of faith. Sammy always puts his faith in action,” Moore said.
“He’ll be the first one out serving with The Salvation Army with the church. Sammy loves to do that. One thing this church is known for, and I can trace it back to Sammy and our elders, is it has a heart for the hurting. He could have a very hard heart from what he hears every day, but it’s just the opposite.
“A lot of the programs that he’s started and a lot of the things he’s started here at church, the people who are addicted or have broken the law, he wants to see them free.“I think he’s really one of the backbones of our church.”