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Retiring Judge Abernathy-Maddox talks about time in office
Judge Abernathy-Maddox

Forsyth County State Court Judge Leslie Abernathy-Maddox recently announced her intention to retire from the bench at the end of her term in 2022 after serving in the role since 2013. 

“It’s been kind of a long process,” Abernathy-Maddox recently told the Forsyth County News. “The last six months, my husband and I have prayed over what’s next in our lives and in my career. He is already retired, and so after a lot of prayer and discussion, we just decided that this was the time for me to step away from the bench and take up that next season of life.” 

Abernathy-Maddox, a Forsyth County native, has been involved in the local court system for more than 30 years, including serving as the county’s solicitor from 1997 until being appointed as state court judge by Gov. Nathan Deal in 2012.  

“I’ve been very blessed to have the opportunity to serve the community that I grew up in, and it’s been a wonderful opportunity for me to have this type of career where I really got to serve others and make a positive impact and to be a change-maker, really, in our judiciary,” she said. “It’s been wonderful.”  

Over the last three decades, Forsyth County has grown from just under 45,000 residents in 1990 to more than 250,000 residents in 2020. 

In that time, Abernathy-Maddox said the state court has seen “seen a tremendous uptick in volume since I first started in the 90s,” mostly in misdemeanor, including traffic, and civil cases, while felonies saw less of an increase during that time.  

“That’s due, in part, to the increase of our population,” Abernathy-Maddox said. “Our roads haven’t always kept up as well with our increase in traffic along those roads because we’ve grown so fast, it’s been very difficult to keep up with that, so you end up having more traffic accidents … where lights don’t really accommodate the level of traffic, so we’ve a huge increase in that.” 

Abernathy-Maddox said during her tenure, the program she has been proudest to be involved with is the Superior Court of Forsyth County’s Mental Health Change, Assist, Restore and Enlighten, or CARE, Court, which was launched in 2014 to deal with those in the court system who have severe and persistent mental illnesses. 

“I would say, as a judge, CARE Court is, by and large, to me, the most important thing I have been involved with because the opportunity to help people, to empower them to make positive changes in their life, is tremendous,” she said. “It affects them, it affects their families and our community.” 

“We’ve seen people reunited with their children when they haven’t had their children in years, and we’ve seen husbands and wives reunited,” she said. “We’ve seen healthy babies born that otherwise would have been born to people who are addicted to drugs and potentially have drugs in their system or cause problems with birth defects and things.” 

The CARE Court, along with DUI, drug and family treatment courts, is part of the county’s accountability court system, which provided alternate pathways for some with legal and other personal issues.  

“It takes a much stronger person to take care of their mental health than it does for them to ignore it and just keep acting the same way.” Abernathy-Maddox said. “It takes a lot more courage, a lot more strength and a lot more out of the person to do that hard work. So, to be able to help be an agent for positive change in terms of the stigma of mental health and to be able to encourage people and set them up for success has been a big blessing for me, so I’m really thankful for that opportunity.” 

In the programs, participants from the court system plead, are sentenced to or have a sentence withheld until the two-year program is completed. 

Once in the program, participants are supervised by the court, sometimes at a treatment facility if they do not have accommodations, and report to the court weekly.  

The court also helps participants deal with medical needs, which can compound mental issues. 

Abernathy-Maddox said the accountability courts were envisioned under former Chief Superior Court Judge Stan Gault, who passed away before they became a reality, and implemented under Chief Superior Court Judge Jeffrey S. Bagley and Chief State Court Judge T. Russell McClelland.  

“That impact, I can’t even explain how big it is because it means we’ve got people in our community that are safe, stable and sober and they’re working and they’re adding to society instead of taking away from it,” she said.  

Along with her involvement with the CARE Court, Abernathy-Maddox started the Forsyth County Domestic Violence Task Force and is currently chair of the annual Forsyth County Domestic Violence Forum. She has also served on the Board of the Children’s Center for Hope and Healing, Forsyth County CASA and Forsyth County’s Relay for Life. 

While she said she still is not sure what her next step is after retirement, she has already had some new opportunities present themselves.  

“I don’t know for sure what’s next,” Abernathy-Maddox said. “I have some opportunities. My goal is to not work full-time but to find some things that I will do that will further my mission serving God, serving others, serving my family and my church, so that’s going to be my focus.”