During her 30-plus year judicial and law enforcement career, Probate Judge Lillis Brown has been both trailblazer and an uncompromising, yet compassionate, presence on the bench. Her long tenure in Rockdale began in 1981 as the District Attorney’s first investigator. She was also the first female judge, both appointed and elected, in the county.
While there are natural traces of melancholy over leaving an office she’s spent a career defining, mostly for the staff she’s leaving behind, there’s a twinkle in her eye anticipating life’s next adventure. “I’ve been working since I was 15 years old, and I’ve always landed on my feet…I’m a walking, talking testament God never closes one door without opening another. My whole career has been that pattern.”
When she started out, very few women were in law enforcement or on the bench in the state. “There were a lot of expectations; you had to establish your own reputation… I was in a man’s world navigating how to work in and through it,” said Brown, “If you’re a good judge, not everybody will agree with you, but they will respect what you’ve done.”
Brown believes her own life experiences have helped her understand many matters coming before her in probate court — losing her father at 19, dealing with a family business, caring for a grandmother with Parkinson’s disease and a mother suffering from Alzheimer’s. “The thing I enjoy most is explaining the law in a way people can understand it and use it to make decisions…bridging that gap.”
Though she’s amassed many state-wide accolades serving on the executive board of the Council of Probate Court Judges of Georgia and chairing their Training Council, one recent local award is a meaningful testament to her career’s span. On Tuesday, Brown received the Light of Hope Award from Rockdale’s Court Appointed Special Advocates, which provides investigators and advocates for children in the judicial system.
Rockdale CASA Director Lynn Killman said in presenting the award, “I have a special place in my heart for Judge Brown. She was one of our founding board members and taught me how to help neglected and abused children — it’s her natural gift.”
Brown remembered one of the first cases she investigated in the District Attorney’s office was the molestation of a young child by her stepfather. He was convicted and served time, but upon his release, the mother took him back. The abused girl eventually committed suicide. “That was tough…we worked so hard to keep that family separated.”
Later in magistrate court, where she served as an assistant magistrate judge, she saw children as the ones suffering most in domestic situations. After moving to probate court, Brown thought she was in an area where children’s matters wouldn't be at the forefront. “Then temporary guardianship became a way for people to avoid DFACS issues, and the children were being passed around like balls in a game,” she said. “I worked really hard to get legislation changed so children wouldn’t be bounced around, and there would be a judicial process to it.”
Brown is gratified when the system yields happy endings. One young man and his mother visited recently when they learned she would be leaving office soon. As a boy, he was given to a grandmother due to abuse from his father and the customs of their foreign culture. Unbeknown to the court, his mother was in Cobb County, and years passed before she learned of her rights and found him through the courts, applying to get him back after an eight-year separation. “He’s 19 now and thanked me for working so hard to get him back to his mother because it was the best day of his life.”
She’s also officiated over 4,000 weddings — including surprising her youngest son in Jamaica when she donned her robe to do the honors. Curiously, it wasn’t her first “surprise” wedding. Another memorable event was a New Year’s Eve Greek wedding where the groom was the surprised guest. He had been anticipating a Valentine’s wedding before his fiancé, with Brown’s help, changed the game.
Since she’s been assured by her successor her staff will keep their jobs, Brown’s overall outlook for Rockdale is positive despite the concerns she hears from citizens. “Honestly, having been out knocking on doors for three months, I know there’s still a lot to be optimistic about here. We have a lot of good people in Rockdale. Even if they’re newer to the county, they want the same thing all of us who’ve lived here for so long love about our county – good neighbors, a good family community.”
Brown said her 10-year-old granddaughter put it all in clear perspective upon learning the hard-fought campaign didn’t fall Brown's way. “I could see the disappointment and loss spread around the room, and she jumped into my lap, put her arms around me and said, ‘You’ll always be my favorite judge, and now you can come have lunch with me,’” said Brown, “Though I love my job and will miss it, it doesn’t define who I am or where I’m going next, which among many places, is having lunch with all nine of my grandchildren.”