After serving 43 years and 9 months in the Toombs Circuit as a prosecutor including 32 years as District Attorney, Dennis Sanders, CLA '69 and LAW '72, will retire at the end of this year. We talked to Sanders about his greatest accomplishments, his biggest challenges, and how Mercer Law impacted his career path. Sanders says, "During my years at Mercer, I found what I had hoped for and expected. I discovered a school with a great reputation for excellence, law professors that were not only challenging, but personable. But perhaps the largest unexpected impact from my law school experience was being part of a student body of so many future leaders. The one shared factor that seemed to be present in all of my classmates was the emphasis on the ethics and duties of our profession."
Sanders has received many awards during his career, including the Assistant District Attorney of the Year Award (1978), the Justice Robert Benham Award for Outstanding Community Service (2005), Georgia's District Attorney of the Year (2006) and Prosecuting Attorney's Lifetime Achievement Award (2016). He is married to Frances Kay Sanders, CLA '72, and has two sons, Shane, BUS '99, and Reid, LAW '08.
Q & A
Q: What do you consider to be your greatest accomplishments?
A: I was elected for 8 terms as District Attorney, which ranks as the longest serving full-time District Attorney in the history of Georgia. That was never a goal. In retrospect, however, I honestly wonder how I or anyone else could have survived for that length of time in the harsh world of politics.
Q: What do you enjoy most about being District Attorney?
A: During my time as District Attorney, I have had the pleasure of working with so many outstanding leaders in my six counties and across the State of Georgia. To develop a relationship where I can call many of these leaders a friend has certainly been rewarding. While many of these friends are no longer with us, the memory of their friendship is and will always be treasured. Serving as the District Attorney has also given me the opportunity to become close with families that are dealing with grief and tragedy. While not always enjoyable, it has been rewarding to lend them some comfort and to give them a shoulder of trust during these difficult times.
Q: What have been the biggest challenges in your career?
A: There cannot be a more serious and challenging decision in an District Attorney’s career than making a decision of seeking the death penalty in a case. It is a decision that demands the highest commitment to seeking justice without regard to politics, pressure from law enforcement or the demands of the victim’s family. It is a question that requires the District Attorney to look within and to his or her God for guidance. I have been involved in 11 death penalty cases. Each one was one of the most difficult and challenging decisions I have ever made or been a part of. I will not miss that part of the job.
Q: How did your experience at Mercer Law impact your career path?
A: I decided early in my life that I was going to Mercer Law School. That was based to a large extent on getting to know attorneys in my hometown that were graduates of Mercer Law School. During my years at Mercer, I found what I had hoped for and expected. I discovered a school with a great reputation for excellence, law professors that were not only challenging, but personable. But perhaps the largest unexpected impact from my law school experience was being part of a student body of so many future leaders. Some of my classmates were just brilliant and to be honest much smarter than me. The one shared factor that seemed to be present in all of my classmates was the emphasis on the ethics and duties of our profession. Of our graduating class of sixty-six, there were seven of us who became District Attorneys. Oddly enough all of us were good friends in Law School. In school we would eat together, study together and even drink beer together. Going to District Attorney Meetings seemed like a law school reunion for me. Several of those District Attorneys later became Judges, two of them have unfortunately passed away, but each one had an impact on my career.
Q: What advice would you give to younger alumni or current students who aspire to a career in criminal prosecution?
A: There are only two halves that make up a whole: your work life and your personal life which encompasses your relationships with your family and your God. If you are happy in both halves you are a fortunate person and you will have a whole life. You should never take a job based solely on money. Prosecution law is a specialty that is almost a calling. While, you may not become the wealthiest attorney in your town, you will be the attorney that can go home at night and feel good about yourself, knowing that you have made a positive difference and contribution to our society. However the most import advice and lesson that I can pass on from my 44 years in the courtrooms is that it is not the result of a particular case or the wins and losses in our career that will frame us, but rather it is the means by which our goals are achieved that will determine how we will be everlastingly remembered.
Q: What would you say to a prospective student who is considering attending Mercer University School of Law?
A: I decided when I was a 9th grade student that I wanted to be a lawyer and specifically that I wanted to go to Mercer. Mercer was the only college and law school to which I applied. Mercer grads are a very close knit family. I can name every Mercer lawyer in the ten to twelve counties surrounding me. When I hire, I give the edge to graduates of Mercer Law School. I know that if they were admitted to Mercer, they have those certain traits that are necessary for one to be successful. There are a large percentage of Judges, District Attorneys, and leaders in the State Bar and the various communities from Mercer Law. Mercer Law School produces leaders. As you look around Georgia, you will notice not only a huge number of Superior Court Judges and District Attorneys, you will notice that the Governor, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and the immediate Past President of the Bar are all Mercer Law School graduates. This is not just a coincidence.