Ex-secretary of state is at head of class

Morris News Service
Former Secretary of State Cathy Cox lectures during an election law class that she's teaching at the University of Georgia's School of Law. Ms. Cox was Georgia's first female secretary of state.

ATHENS, Ga. - Lots of University of Georgia law professors have practiced law, but how many studied agriculture, wrote for a daily newspaper, made state laws and guided one of the most complex offices in state government?


Just one, and former Georgia Secretary of State Cathy Cox brings all that experience to the classroom, according to her students.

"I thought I was going to be star-struck at first, but it turned out I wasn't," said third-year law student Amanda Patterson.

Ms. Cox is approachable, easygoing and has a genuine interest in her students, Ms. Patterson said.

Law school Dean Rebecca White hired Ms. Cox as the Carl E. Sanders Chair of Political Leadership, a semesterlong position created in 2002 with a $1 million donation from UGA graduate and former Gov. Carl Sanders.

The purpose of the position, which has been held by former U.S. senator and past secretary of state Max Cleland and former Georgia Supreme Court Justice George T. Smith, is to get more lawyers interested in public service, Ms. Cox said.

"There's a tremendous need for lawyers to be in public service for the sake of good government," said Ms. Cox, who is teaching the annual Law and Politics course and a specialty course in her field - election law. "We need more lawyers to understand elections."

She said that during her tenure as secretary of state, she learned that very few lawyers in Georgia understand laws governing elections and voting.

Ms. Cox, the first woman elected secretary of state in Georgia, established the first universal electronic voting system of any state in the United States.

It was an uphill climb, she said, but she convinced the Legislature after the 2000 Florida election fiasco to get ahead of the federal government's Help America Vote Act by reforming Georgia's election system.

She hopes her students will learn from those mistakes and from her experiences dealing with both sides of the law.

"I want them to be better thinkers," she said.

Ms. Cox's interest in the intersection between law and politics stretches back to her college years, when her father was a state legislator and they bantered over the issues, said the UGA and Mercer Law School graduate.

Ms. Cox said she isn't afraid to share her opinion in class, and she is "perfectly happy with them arguing with my opinion," but she expects them to have a good argument.

A significant portion of a student's grade in the Law and Politics course is based on their ability to understand at least two sides to an issue by writing a paper advocating opposite sides of an issue, she said.

When she first agreed to teach election law, she thought "no problem, I can do that in my sleep," Ms. Cox said.

But she quickly learned that teaching takes a lot of prep work.

"Preparing for every class presentation is like preparing for an oral argument in the Supreme Court," Ms. Cox said.

Ms. Patterson, who expects to graduate in May, said that after 2 years of intensive classes on the nuts and bolts of law, she looked forward to taking both of Ms. Cox's classes.

"I wanted to take something a little more interesting and fun," said the Hampton native.

Ms. Patterson doesn't expect she will use what she learns in Ms. Cox's classes in her day-to-day law practice, but it will give her a unique breadth of knowledge, she said.

"I'm kind of a Georgia politics junkie," said Ms. Patterson, who cheered on Ms. Cox in her unsuccessful campaign for lieutenant governor last year. "I admire her."

Ms. Cox's experience as both a lawmaker and a law enforcer gives students a more well-rounded perspective on politics and law, said second-year law student Noyle Jones.

"The traditional law school class primarily teaches how the rules work and how to apply legal rules, but she (Ms. Cox) teaches how the rules got to be what they are," said Ms. Jones, of Ringgold.

"The law school is full of academic professors who know the law inside and out, but they haven't seen the other side," she said.

Ms. Jones, a fan of Ms. Cox, said a few Republican students take Ms. Cox's classes, and though they might not agree with her politics, they're still there because the topics are interesting and current.

Teaching at UGA is a "good transition opportunity" that gives Ms. Cox a few months of fun while she figures out what she's going to do next, she said.

"I really enjoy the academic environment better than I expected," Ms. Cox said.