Local News

February 15, 2014

Gazaway is new magistrate; Baxter retires after 45 years

Settling into her first weeks in office, newly appointed Whitfield County Magistrate Judge Gayle Gazaway said the job is a step up that conforms with her lifelong love of learning and desire to help the community where she lives.

A Whitfield County native, Gazaway has worked in the magistrate office for more than 25 years, working her way up from an entry level clerk to the top clerk in the office. So when Magistrate Judge Sidney Baxter announced his retirement from office in December, Chief Magistrate Haynes Townsend was quick to appoint Gazaway to the job.

She began working Jan. 1 with approval from the four Superior Court judges for the Conasauga Judicial Circuit that covers Whitfield and Murray counties. Baxter’s unexpired term concludes at the end of 2015, and Gazaway said she’s already planning to run for election.

“Gayle is very well-versed in the law and has dealt with it on a daily basis in that period of time, and quite frankly, she’s one of the most intelligent women I know,” Townsend said. “She’ll fit into the court on the judge’s side just as well as she fit in as the chief clerk for many years.”

Magistrate Court handles civil claims up to $15,000 and issues criminal warrants. The court also handles evictions and foreclosures and is often the first court before which suspects will appear after they are arrested. Charges related to breaking county ordinances are handled in the court, and a handful of criminal charges — including shoplifting, criminal trespass, purchase or possession of alcohol by a minor, deposit account fraud and possession of less than an ounce of marijuana — originate there.

Gazaway, who has an associate degree in general studies technology from Dalton State College, said she must complete 80 hours of training as a new judge.

She began work in 1987 as a deputy clerk, then was promoted to clerk of court in 1995. Gazaway said she’s always enjoyed learning. In her other positions, she said, she was known for questioning why procedures and policies were the way they were rather than stopping at learning the task itself.

Asked what the hardest part of the judge’s job is, Gazaway said it’s the decision to put someone out of their home through an eviction. While state law governs the circumstances under which an unpaid landlord can press a tenant to leave, Gazaway said it’s still the court’s job to issue the order.

“That’s the hardest for me,” she said.

Baxter agreed that was the hardest part of the job for him, too. As one of the longest-sitting magistrate judges in Georgia, Baxter served in the position for 45 years. When he first began, the office was justice of the peace rather than magistrate court. The name, and some of the functions, changed in the early 1980s. Baxter was among just a handful of judges who were around before and after the shift.

One of the biggest changes he’s seen over the years is in the way judges are paid. As a justice of the peace in some parts of the state, judges were making far upwards of $200,000 a year, Baxter recalled, as they were all paid by the task — so much for a warrant, so much for a dispossessory, and so on. As state law changed justice of the peace offices around the state over into magistrate courts paid out of a general fund, all that began to change. Prior to sometime in the 1980s, the office also didn’t handle criminal charges, he added. Gradually, that began to change.

Gazaway said she learned a lot from Baxter by working with him over the years. His compassion toward others made an impression on her, she said. One time, a young woman who was just starting her career was charged with writing bad checks. Through some investigation, it became obvious there was only a lapse in her account as she changed banks and that she quickly corrected the matter. Baxter said the woman came to him for help because she was up for a promotion and was struggling to keep her career momentum going after the employer ran a criminal background check. Baxter said he spoke with those who were reviewing the record and helped clear her name.

Another time, Gazaway said, there was a couple with two young children who were coming through Dalton on their way to another state. The children’s father faced some kind of charge and had to spend a night in jail, leaving the mother and children with no place to go. When Baxter found out they were in the jail lobby where they had planned to stay for the night, he gave Gazaway some money and had her buy food and some necessities for them to tide them over. The office also took up a collection to help them get to their destination, she said.

Gazaway said she approaches the judge’s job with the same work ethic as her other endeavors — by trying to do the best job possible, treat people fairly and with respect, and live in a way that she knows at the end of the day she did all she could.

Baxter lives in Rocky Face and attends Rocky Face Baptist Church. He and wife Eloise have three children, five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

Gazaway has two daughters, one son and three grandchildren. She has lived in Rocky Face since 1988.

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