Superior Court judges in the Augusta Judicial Circuit don their robes and take the bench as the face of the local judicial system.
But they are confident that all will run smoothly thanks to Tom Gunnels, who makes sure they have everything they need.
As the trial court Administrator for the Circuit consisting of Columbia, Richmond and Burke counties, Gunnels oversees court operations from starting new programs and case flow management to personnel and office supplies.
“When they go on the bench, everything should be in place,’ said Gunnels. “Every person should be in place, all the staff they need, all the tools they need, everything should be there.”
But after 35 years as a court administrator, Gunnels is trading his coat and tie for retirement and a more relaxed lifestyle.
“My new life begins,” said Gunnels. “I’ve worn a tie five days a week for 40 years. Now it’s time to do something a little different that includes doing nothing.
“I have family to visit. I have fish to catch. I have game to hunt. I have places to visit and pictures to take and gardens to grow. I am a man of many many interests.”
Gunnels will retire on Aug. 29.
Gunnels graduated from Georgia Southern in 1974 and was a grant writer until accepting the position of 10th District Court Administrator in 1979. For the next 30 years, Gunnels oversaw the operations of trial courts under 30 judges in 21 counties. When he retired in 2009, Superior Court Chief Judge J. Carlisle Overstreet decided to have one administrator for the entire circuit and enlisted Gunnels as its first.
“Tom is a professional,” Overstreet said, adding that Gunnels has become a huge asset by bringing his detailed-oriented nature and practical experience to the circuit. “I’m going to miss him. He’s gotten us into a system that works.”
Because of his vast experience, mentorship and active membership in the Georgia Council of Court Administrators, the organization is presenting Gunnels with the William Barclay Herndon Lifetime Achievement Award at the council’s annual conference in September.
Immediate Past President and Executive Committee member Edwin Bell, a deputy court administrator in DeKalb County, said the award has only been given twice before to people who have made significant contributions to the court administration profession.
“Typically the person who receives this award is somebody that has been a mentor to other court administrators around the state,” Bell said. “A person who has given selflessly, not just to the profession but to our organization and helping build up future court leaders. And a person who is like Tom, who is very humble. He is the type of person that personifies the whole purpose of this award.”
“Tom Gunnels is just a fantastic guy who is absolutely deserving of this award. We are happy to give it to him.”
Gunnels admits he’s a behind-the-scenes kind of guy. He values efficiency more than fame and is happy to spend his days tending to the details of the day-to-day operation of the courts.
“I’m the quiet man who makes things move,” Gunnels said.
Gunnels has been instrumental in designing and constructing the newest and largest judicial buildings in the area – the Columbia County Courthouse Annex and Justice Center in Evans, which opened in 2002, and the John H. Ruffin, Jr. Courthouse, which opened in 2012. He’s opened a total of six during his career.
The courthouses are complicated buildings that need extreme attention to the details to ensure security and functionality and promote smooth workflow. Managing case flow and personnel is sort of an abstract work goal. But watching the brick and mortar or a courthouse go up is a particularly satisfying end to years of design and construction work, Gunnels said.
“It’s rewarding,” Gunnels said. “It’s actually one of the few tangible things I can see. ... That’s pretty cool.”
Gunnels said he and his secretary Charlene Crank, with whom he began working when he started working in court administration in 1979, will be retiring at the same time.
“We’ve been a team ever since,” Gunnels said. “She’s been my secretary longer than my wife has been my wife. ... She’s been my right hand for years.”
Gunnels was instrumental in helping to recruit and choose his replacement.
Shaun Brooks, chief of the Columbia County Marshal’s Department, has been hired to take over Gunnels’ position.
Brooks, who has been eying Gunnels’ job or one like it for a few years, has already joined the state council and has been pursuing certifications after graduating with a Masters degree in Business.
“Tom has been a great role model for me,” Brooks said. “He’s experienced it from the ground up. Talking with him has given me great insight into a lot of things.
Brooks said he’s excited to lead the circuit in the next era of court administration, but doesn’t take the job with trepidation of following Gunnels. He sees his predecessor as a resource since he started and molded court administration in the state.
“No one will ever replace Tom, period,” Brooks said. “This is kind of exciting. This is a prestigious opportunity to have.
“What he does is multi-faceted. I know it’s not easy. If I’m going to stay in this (law enforcement) arena, that’s the job I wanted.”
After a nationwide search and interviews with six finalists, the circuit’s eight Superior Court judges agreed that Brooks was the right man for the job.
“There’s always room for new ideas,” Overstreet said. “Shaun has the makings of a professional in that field. ... I think he has the ability to gain that professionalism and understanding of how things work.
“I’m looking forward to having him.”
Brooks has been consulting with Gunnels as he cleans out his offices in the three courthouses. He’ll be training his successor for the last two weeks before his retirement.
“It’s hard to impart 35 years of knowledge in two weeks,” Gunnels said. “We’re excited about him coming on board. He’s got a lot of energy and enthusiasm. He’s a bright young man and I think he’ll do well here.”
In the meantime, Gunnels said he plans to spend some quality time at his favorite Gulf Coast beach with his wife, Necia.
“It’s been a great ride,” Gunnels said. “I worked with great people. ... It’s been a great ride. It really has.”