Matt Leipold comes from a family of lawyers, but the former salesman who reads William Faulkner in his downtime has had a less than conventional path to his new juvenile court judgeship position.
On March 15, Leipold was named the fourth judge on the Juvenile Court bench for Hall and Dawson counties. Previously an assistant public defender, he was appointed by the Superior Court judges and was sworn in Monday.
The courts received American Rescue Plan funding in December to add a fourth judgeship, which they had otherwise planned on doing in 2024.
Juvenile court judges deal primarily with cases of delinquency and dependency. In the former, judges hear cases involving a child who is charged with an act that would be a crime if that child were an adult. They decide if the child is guilty, and if so, what sort of punishment, treatment or rehabilitation is appropriate. They also hear dependency cases involving child abuse or neglect. Parents may be ordered to undergo counseling or their child may be placed into foster care if they are deemed unfit.
Having earned a bachelor’s in English and Spanish from the University of Georgia, Leipold was not initially set on pursuing a career in law, though he said the prospect always sat in the back of his mind.
A liberal arts education and a passion for reading have informed his practice in some ways. In college, he immersed himself in the novels of classic Southern authors like William Faulkner.
He is proficient in Spanish, and when he’s not working or spending time with his one-month and 18-month-old children, he takes to reading creative fiction. It serves as a break from the hustle and bustle of the courtroom, but it has also sometimes made its way into his practice.
“It was always useful up until now when I've been a public defender and I'm representing people in court, because when you're an advocate, you're really a storyteller,” he said. “I think novels and more creative writing do a good job of both entertaining you and kind of — this probably sounds pretentious — but teaching you a little bit about human nature and sort of opening your mind a bit.”
Leipold was born in Atlanta and grew up in the Tucker-Stone Mountain area. The second of four children, his older brother is a federal prosecutor for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Atlanta, and his younger brother works as an attorney at his father’s Decatur law firm, Leipold Law.
“A lot of lawyers,” he said. “And actually all three of my siblings are married to lawyers also.”
On the one hand, he had some desire to follow in his family’s footsteps, but on the other, he wanted to carve a different path.
In college, he considered a career in academia and pursuing a graduate degree in linguistics. Instead, he found himself in Raleigh, North Carolina, selling accounting software.
The experience pushed the boundaries of his comfort zone, he said, but he soon discovered that he belonged in the courtroom.
He recalled the moment he realized that he wanted to pursue a career in law. He and his colleagues were celebrating his strong sales numbers.
“When you're on a sales force everybody gets really excited about sales, and everybody’s pumping you up,” he said. “It should have been a really happy moment, and it was, but at the same time, I was like, I’m not cut out for this month after month, year after year. This is just not fulfilling for me.”
All the while, he had enjoyed reading about the law. He returned to UGA and earned his law degree.
“I really enjoyed the law school experience and found that it was something that I was going to want to do for my whole career,” he said.
He imagined a rather solitary career in appellate court.
“Where you kind of just sit down in a room by yourself and research and write briefs for appeals, that kind of thing,” he said. “But when I started working in the public defender's office, I realized I really liked being in the courtroom and interacting with clients.”
He began working in the public defender’s office in 2013, and he said he spent the first six months or so working in the juvenile court.
“I was mostly in juvenile court,” he said. “And since then I've periodically handled cases here and there.”
But he said working as a public defender has also prepared him to be a juvenile court judge.
“I’ve developed a lot of knowledge about the law, which is important, but I've also developed a lot of life experience about how the law applies and how it actually impacts people,” he said. “I think that's really important for a judge to understand that. Of course, you have to make a decision within the boundaries of the law, but at the same time, you have to consider, ‘How does this really affect these people?’”
He spoke about the weighty responsibility of his new role and “understanding and appreciating the emotional aspect of juvenile court.”
“You have to decide, for example, whether a parent gets to maintain custody of her children, which is of course one of the biggest decisions that a court could ever make,” he said. “That's comparable to decisions whether somebody goes to prison or how long they go to prison for. I mean, that's just as serious and, in some cases, can be more serious.”
He said there were probably about half a dozen candidates for the position. The Times requested the list of applicants, but the court declined the request.
When asked why he thinks he was chosen over the others, he identified his experience, his work ethic and the rapport he built with judges as a public defender.
“I’ve been practicing here for over eight years now as a public defender, so I've handled a large caseload and had cases in front of all of the judges here,” he said. “I think what they saw in me was that I would put in the serious work and attention to make good decisions on those really difficult matters.”
This story was originally published in The Gainesville Times, a sister publication of the Dawson County News.