Looking down over his bench Judge Sidney Nation routinely sees an ever changing river of defendants, prosecutors, lawyers and jurors.
However, as his eyes drift further toward his desk, the Rockdale County Chief Superior Court Judge sees something that has remained the steady throughout the years. Framed on the left side of his desk is a quote from the song “Choices” by George Jones:
“I’ve had choices since the day I was born/ there were voices that told me right from wrong/ if I had listened I wouldn’t be here today living and dying with the choices I’ve made.”
Nation, set to retire at the end of the year, has repeated the quote to defendants several times while he sat on Rockdale’s top bench for the last 25 years. It reminds them that they made the choice to get themselves where they are.
The quote also says Nation has a choice on how best to serve not just Rockdale County, but also the individual in front of him.
Nation has displayed that in how he handles everyone who comes into his courtroom, including during sentencing. When those sentences lead to extended time served, there are times when people are angry at the decision. However, also there have been times when people have been grateful for Nation’s decision to imprison them.
“I have people come up to me all the time, up to twice a week or so saying, ‘Do you remember me from 10 years - or whatever years ago? I’ve got a job; I’m married; I have children; I own a house; I’m paying my bills. I wouldn’t have that if you hadn’t passed the sentence that you did. That time in jail really straightened me out.’”
That has kept the judge going throughout all his years on the bench, acting as one of Rockdale County’s longest serving superior court judges.
“I think that’s where it counts,” Nation said. “If that’s 200 people over the last 25 years, than how many people have those 200 affected. That’s at least what I’ve hoped has happened.”
Those 200-250 lives have been effected thanks to, as the song says, choices.
While serving for the U.S. Army in Vietnam, Nation was a captain with the ordinance corps in the logistics section when he got his first taste of law. Three of his enlisted men came up for court martial while in country, meaning they needed an officer to stand in for them. Nation was up for the task, learning how to deliberate, investigate and find the truth in legal situations.
“I was defense council at that point, and I enjoyed doing it,” Nation said. “I started to think about that, and I applied for law school while I was in Vietnam.”
The Georgia Tech undergrad enrolled at the University of Georgia after serving on his tour, leaving Athens as a lawyer and starting on the career path that would mark the rest of his life.
“Georgia Tech taught me how to think,” Nation said. “The University of Georgia taught me how to make a living.”
He started making a living while working with the law firm of Vaughn and Barksdale when he was 30 in 1970. That’s when he started to fall in love with Conyers, and its small town feel, as he needed help on his way to take the bar exam in Atlanta.
“I stopped to speak to Mr. Vaughn, and I didn’t have any money,” Nation said. “I had 500 bucks. And it’s that kind of relationship in a small town that’s really important.”
As he continued to work with Vaughn and Barksdale as a lawyer, where he first met current assistant Debbie Campbell, he developed his style.
“One secretary who worked very closely with me said she would do all the work on my desk if I just did Sidney Nation’s work,” Campbell said. “He wasn’t difficult to work for, he’s just a perfectionist.
“He would do his work over and over again until it was correct. But one you finished something for him you knew it was a piece of art and it was well done.”
After he felt a point in his career as a lawyer where he thought he had accomplished enough, Nation moved on to become a judge. In his first run at the bench, he wasn’t elected. But being the type of person he is, he made the choice to run again. This time he won, and has sat on the bench until January 2013 when he will retire.
While on the bench, his conservative style has become synonymous with the county.
One anecdote relayed to Nation is the time a man who was drinking got into a wreck. The first thing the suspect did as the police officer approached was ask if he was in DeKalb or Rockdale County, because he knew he’d face severe consequences if he was in Rockdale County.
Another instance is when a recording device was left on as a suspect sat in the backseat of a patrol car. The recording was later played during the man’s trial. As the officer walked toward the scene, leaving him alone in the car he started talking to himself.
Nation, who heard the tape, said “He says to himself, ‘Good Lord, what have I done. Judge Nation is going to kick my ass.’
“So that has an effect and that’s part of what you do as a judge, you try to deter other people from doing what folks do.”
Nation has strived to do that throughout his years, hoping that that is his mark in Rockdale County.
“I’m not saying that our judicial system is perfect but I think we’re trustworthy,” Nation said. “We’re fair. We beat out justice and we take everything into consideration when we take a case. I think over the years, maybe this court has made a difference in the lives of individual people, not just the community.”
The years on the bench are now coming to an end for Nation, who has decided not to run for re-election. Nation said he will continue fishing, maybe travel, maybe practice law a bit and maybe even serve as a senior judge throughout the state of Georgia.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do yet,” Nation said. “My wife will probably end up telling me what I’m going to do.”