Plaques of honor and recognition cover the walls of DeKalb County Superior Court Judge Gregory A. Adams’ chambers. Phrases like “living legend” and “distinguished service” attest to his profound influence over a 30-plus-year career in the complex, nuanced and very public arena of criminal justice.
Yet Adams’ outlook on his life and career is profoundly simple: If you are capable of doing good things, do them.
Adams had wanted to change the world since his youth. As an African American child growing up in Atlanta during the mid-twentieth century, he says his mother and father sheltered him from the cruelty of society. Fueled by their wisdom and protection, he was convinced at a very early age that the sky was the limit – and so he settled for nothing less.
“My childhood looked different from the way most people viewed the segregated South,” he says. “I didn’t fully comprehend what leaders of the Civil Rights movement like Andrew Young and Dr. Martin Luther King were doing. As an adult, I have great appreciation and respect for what they’ve done. As far as I’m concerned, they’re our heroes.”
He did have a childhood hero, though, in Thurgood Marshall, who influenced his decision to become a lawyer in the sixth grade.
“I realized, at least from a child’s perspective, lawyers have a tremendous impact on society. And I wanted to try to make a difference in my own way,” he says. “When I learned about Thurgood Marshall, I saw how one lawyer became an advocate for others and created change for the nation. One lawyer could make a difference.”
Adams held on to his childhood ambition throughout middle and high school.
While an undergraduate at Georgia State University, Adams had an internship at the Fulton County Solicitor’s Office that he says ultimately influenced his decision to become a prosecuting attorney.
“The blending of the classroom experience with the work experience made what the professors were teaching us crystal clear. It cemented in my mind the importance and responsibility of being a prosecutor, who is probably the most powerful person in the criminal justice system. Prosecutors choose which charges should be brought and which charges should be dismissed,” he says. “It’s a huge responsibility.”
After earning a Juris Doctor at the University of Georgia, Adams began his career as a prosecuting attorney for DeKalb County. He worked three years there as an assistant solicitor and seven as an assistant district attorney. Though working as a juvenile court judge was never part of his plan, he decided to pursue it after his first decade in the system.
“It’s probably the best thing that ever happened to me,” he says.
As chief judge of the DeKalb County Juvenile Court another 10 years, Adams learned the importance of treatment and rehabilitation. He says the juvenile courts were the best preparation he could have received for his current position as a DeKalb County Superior Court judge.
“The decisions I make directly impact the lives of others. As a person who imposes the consequence of a sentence, I have direct control over how the matter is going to be resolved,” he says. “I believe it’s important to hold individuals accountable for violations of the law, but at the same time, you have to look at alternatives to incarceration.
“I believe people make mistakes, and people can change. It’s okay to give someone the opportunity to turn their life around.”
In 2005, Adams became the first African-American jurist to have a portrait displayed in a DeKalb County building. He was honored with a portrait that resides in the DeKalb County Juvenile Court.
Two years later, his service led to a unanimous decision by the DeKalb County Commissioners to name the county’s new juvenile court building the “Gregory A. Adams Juvenile Justice Center.” This honor made Adams the first DeKalb County judge to have a building named in his honor.
Regardless of the formal recognition, Adams says the most rewarding part of his work is meeting the men and women whose lives have changed because of his rulings.
“One of the best parts of my job is when individuals – some whom I may not even remember – come to me and thank me because I gave them an opportunity to try again. I gave them a second chance, and I see their success.”
Adams has served on the DeKalb County Superior Court since 2004 and was re-elected without opposition in 2008 and 2012. He was also the first person to serve as president of both the DeKalb Lawyers Association and the DeKalb Bar Association.
When Adams was first elected to the Superior Court, he started an annual law textbook scholarship through the DeKalb Lawyers Association in memory of a fellow Georgia State University graduate, Carl Anthony Cunningham.
“When Carl was a student at Georgia State, he lost his eyesight. Imagine having the ability to see, losing it, and continuing to pursue your education without being discouraged. During the intense amount of reading, research and studying in law school, he excelled. That took a lot of courage. He was such a motivation to me.”
Adams will continue to keep his friend’s memory alive through the scholarship. “For someone who can work through that level of adversity, that’s true success.”
Adams received the Georgia State University Alumni Association Distinguished Alumni Community Service Award in 2009 and the Georgia State University Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology Distinguished Alumni Service Award in 2015. He is approaching his third year as a member of the Andrew Young School’s advisory board, an experience he describes as inspirational.
“The best part of serving on the advisory board is being exposed to everything that is happening, all the opportunities students receive. It really is amazing to see from an advisory standpoint. The Andrew Young School is preparing students to change the world,” Adams says.
And changing the world is part of the legacy Adams hopes to leave, one of second chances and success marked by service to others, with a positive regard for humanity.
“If you want to improve society, you can do something. If you achieve any level of success without helping others, how can you possibly be successful?”