The Atlanta Bar Association honored State Court conflict defender Elaine T. McGruder (J.D. ’90) with the 2016 Public Service Award for her significant contributions in advancing the fair administration of justice in the community. She was presented with the award at the ninth annual Celebrating Service Luncheon on Oct. 21.
“Many of us aspire to do what Elaine has done throughout her career,” said Norman J. Slawsky. “She fulfills the best of a lawyer’s professional responsibility every day and not just once in a while. Elaine is respected by her fellow attorneys and in the courts where she serves. She has pursued public service as a way of life.”
McGruder, director of the Fulton County Public Defender/State and Magistrate Courts, is a zealous advocate for indigent clients, ensuring they are treated and represented fairly. Slawsky recalls McGruder’s dedication to clients with limited financial means even while working in private practice.
“She thrived on helping people by taking pro bono cases or cases which paid $50 for a trial,” he said. “Elaine was attentive to each client and did whatever she needed to do to prepare a case and to get it resolved in a way which helped the client to move on with their lives. She takes great pride in every case she works on and communicates her enthusiasm and dedication to the lawyers who work with her.”
McGruder continues to be a champion of public interest, motivating her colleagues to adopt the same principles. “I tell all my attorneys ‘I want you to treat everyone like they are paying you a million dollars,’” she said.
In Fulton, McGruder has been instrumental in the accountability courts, said Judge Susan Edlein of the State Court of Fulton County.
“Ms. McGruder helped to start the DUI Court and the Treatment Diversion Court, designed for criminal defendants suffering from mental illness. Her involvement in these courts goes well above and beyond her regular ‘day job’ as a criminal defense lawyer. She exemplifies the unsung heroes who work every day to ensure that our constitutional rights are protected,” said Edlein, who nominated McGruder for the award.
McGruder strongly believes in accountability programs. “If a person can get stabilized on medication, find a job and get out of criminal justice system, that helps not only the person, but their family and society,” she said.
McGruder is known for her dedication in supervising interns and support of less experienced attorneys. It’s important to ensure that future lawyers are well-trained and have insight into public interest law, whether or not that’s what they choose to practice, said McGruder, who also advises and judges high school mock trial teams.
She praises Georgia State Law for its focus on experiential learning. “The college has such great practical programs, professors who have been in the courtroom and internships where students can get experience. That makes a huge difference when you start in practice,” she said, “and that’s one reason I like hiring lawyers who attended Georgia State.”
Josh Schiffer (J.D. ’02) said McGruder has been a great influence in his career. “Knowing and working with Elaine McGruder has been one of the singular pleasures of my professional life,” he said. “She is a walking legend in Fulton, and for all the best reasons. I have dozens of anecdotes regarding good deeds she has done, from being the last hope of the homeless, mentally ill and socially fragile through standing up for Indigent Defense Lawyers at committees who barely think we even know how to practice. Without her, I would never be where I am today.”
McGruder said receiving the award was especially meaningful to her. “As a public defender, you don’t get a lot of appreciation sometimes. I have 16 lawyers working with me, and I told them this award is for you too because I don’t do this job by myself. We work hard every day—it’s truly more than a full-time job.”