Jan. 2—MARIETTA — Ask Cobb County's longest serving prosecutor about the mark he's left in his quarter-century in office, and he won't point to any headline-making cases.
Sure, says retiring Cobb Solicitor Barry Morgan, he's had some interesting trials in his day, and some anecdotes from the courtroom to pass along.
But on the eve of his last day in office Friday, Morgan told the MDJ he's most proud of the people who worked under his tutelage since he first took office in 1998.
"If I have one skill, I think it's recognizing talent in the people that we bring on," Morgan said. "The solicitor's office is a training ground for people to come in, get some trial experience and then decide to move on."
Morgan brandished an impressive list of some of the folks who've passed through his office in the past 25 years. It includes two Cobb Superior Court judges, nine Cobb State Court judges, two Cobb district attorneys, a bevy of municipal and magistrate judges in Cobb and elsewhere, hundreds of defense attorneys, and nearly half of the Cobb district attorney's stable of lawyers.
"I think that if you look at an individual and you see potential and you give them the opportunity to blossom, they will do great things ... That's the thing I'm most proud of that has come through the office, are the people, and the people who've gone on to do great things," he said.
Though Morgan would end up a fixture of Cobb's legal scene, he didn't come to law straightaway. Before all that, he spent a dozen years as a teacher and band director until he decided to get his law degree.
"I was still teaching school during the day, but after I passed the bar, I was at a Cobb Chamber function and Jim Bodiford — who was still the chief magistrate at the time — saw me and he said, 'Hey, have you passed the bar?' And I said I had. And he said, 'You want to be a part-time magistrate judge?' And I was sort of taken aback, but I agreed," Morgan recalled.
Thus the graveyard shift in magistrate court would be one of Morgan's first gigs. Then in the late 1980s, then-District Attorney Tom Charron brought Morgan on as a prosecutor on drug and organized crime cases.
"What impressed me about Barry when I hired him as a lawyer was that he had a maturity about him, and I think that had a lot to do with the fact he was a little older coming out of law school ... He showed great knowledge, and had that maturity I was always looking for in a prosecutor," Charron recalled. "When you're dealing with felony cases, you'd rather not have prosecutors who are right out of law school and have not had life experience," he added. "...I can't say I was surprised (by Morgan's career), because Barry always impressed me as a person who really cared about his community."
In 1992, Morgan almost pulled off another career pivot when he made a run for Cobb school board.
"And I tell people that the best thing that ever happened to me was not winning that school board race," he joked.
Morgan then became the right hand of then-Solicitor General Ben Smith. When Charron stepped down in 1998, Smith was named district attorney, and Morgan solicitor general. Both ran for reelection that year, and Morgan was reelected to the post he'd hold the rest of his career (Smith was not as lucky, losing to Pat Head).
Cobb and its criminal justice system have seen many a change since then. Morgan recalled when prosecutors had a more flimsy grasp on the causes and cycles of domestic violence, and when the legal limit for DUI cases was a generous 1.2 blood alcohol level (today, it's 0.8).
"Over time, the decisions that we make have evolved, especially in those two areas," he said.
Another is marijuana charges. Morgan said it used to be that every drug confiscated in an arrest was sent to the state crime lab for testing. But nowadays, testing costs and requirements have made prosecutions for possession more onerous, and less worth the resources required.
"Our position has always been that marijuana is illegal. Nothing changed about that. But we look at alternative sentences, and the carrot and the stick is most of the time, these individuals have other charges that go along with marijuana," he said. "...What that allows for is, everything that was in under that umbrella is eligible for restriction (of records). So that's the carrot that gets people to take responsibility for what they've done."
Echoing other longstanding members of the county's legal community, however, Morgan said one thing that hasn't changed has been Cobb's tight-knit character.
"I think we have a very collegial bar. Now back in the day, we had some colorful characters — a fellow named Virgil Spence. The judges would love to listen to him tell his stories. Of course we had Gov. (Roy) Barnes, and quite a few of the — we call them the warhorses, and I think they set the tone," he said.
"We're adversaries, but we're not going to be combatants," he continued. "...Like I said, the old warhorses set the tone of how folks are going to work together here. You fight in the courtroom, you don't fight outside the courtroom. You understand each side's role."
Morgan said in his prosecutorial experience, he always preferred to go up against a savvy defense lawyer at trial.
"The hardest cases that I ever had in the district attorney's office were the pro se cases (in which the defendant represents themselves)," he said. "They're the hardest cases that you can imagine, because we as prosecutors are tasked not only with presenting our case, but also ensuring that the defendants' rights are protected. And they don't have a lawyer."
"So I would much rather see a Bruce Harvey, a Don Samuel, somebody that I know is doing their job on that side so I can concentrate on my job," he said.
Morgan's departure marks the end of another era — the Republican dominance that had Cobb in its grasp for more than a generation. On Jan. 1, Democrat Makia Metzger officially took the reins of the solicitor's office.
But Morgan argued in most cases, the solicitor's office isn't one all that entangled in partisan bickering.
"I govern the budget aspects of the office in a fiscally conservative way. That's always been my philosophy. But we don't have a policy about, we're going to prosecute Democrats or Republicans any differently. So, policy-wise, I just don't think it should play a role," he said, adding that in his view, elections for the solicitor's office should nonpartisan.
"Our philosophy has always been justice with compassion. I've told my folks that we have our share of criminals — repeat offenders and that sort of thing, and they need to be dealt with in a certain way," he said. "But most of the people that we deal with ... are our neighbors, our relatives and folks who have made a poor decision."
Morgan said that's one of the most important lessons to impress on young attorneys.
"Sometimes they've been trained to be an advocate, and get on one side and do their thing. But that may not — a trial may not be justice. So that's the hardest thing for them to learn," he said.
As far as what's next, Morgan will still keep a busy schedule. He's returning to his roots, in a way, teaching music business classes at Auburn and Troy universities, while serving as a part-time Cobb magistrate judge, just as he did nearly 40 years ago. He also starts this week as a hearing officer for disciplinary proceedings in the Cobb County School District.
"It's 47 years since I started working, and looks like I'm going to be working a few more years," he said. "I have to do something. I think you stay young."