Q&A: Harold Melton Chief Justice, Georgia Supreme Court
Setting the Tone
Harold Melton had a singular but rock-solid preparation for his role as Georgia’s top jurist, with 11 years in the state attorney general’s office; a stint as former-Gov. Sonny Perdue’s executive counsel, including work on the team attempting to negotiate a settlement in the tri-state water wars; and 13 years on the high court.
Perdue appointed Melton to the Supreme Court in 2005 and was on hand to see him sworn in last September as chief justice.
Melton graduated from Auburn University, where he was the first African-American student government president, and earned his law degree from the University of Georgia. After his first year in Athens, he interned with the late Chief Justice Harris Hines, his predecessor, who was then a superior court judge in Cobb County. That was the beginning of a friendship that lasted three decades.
Melton was selected as chief justice by his fellow judges and sworn in by the retiring Hines just weeks before Hines died in an automobile accident.
Georgia’s chief justice is held in high esteem by his colleagues. He is thoughtful and low-key, with a dry humor and a deep appreciation of the court and its workings. He has a long history of working with young people, serving on the national and local boards of Young Life, a Christian youth ministry.
Melton talked with Editor-At-Large Susan Percy in his office across from the Capitol. Following are edited highlights of the interview.
GT: Having Justice Hines swear you in as his successor must have meant a great deal.
Melton: It really was an honor for me and for him, I believe, that I was able to follow him. I feel fairly well equipped and informed to have the opportunity to do well. I thank him for that.
GT: You had some other stops on the way to your current job – with the attorney general’s office and as executive counsel to Gov. Sonny Perdue.
Melton: I went from law school to the attorney general’s office. I spent 11 years there, started in property tax, did my last four years in consumer protection work. That’s when I got the call to join Gov. Perdue’s team.
GT: How do those work experiences inform your work at the state Supreme Court?
Melton: I learned to practice law in the attorney general’s office. I learned how to go into the office, close the door, get the books out and study. There’s no substitute for that. That foundation was there.
I went to the governor’s office not really knowing much about the governor personally. So there was some uncertainty, but that was too much of an opportunity to pass up. That was an opportunity to sit at the table when decisions impacting the state were being discussed, to learn and to grow and to have input in that area. Turns out it was a great move. I enjoyed working with the governor and enjoyed working with the staff he put together.
GT: Not all citizens actually know much about the state Supreme Court. What specifically is its role?
Melton: To keep the judiciary honest. We have a system of checks and balances, but we’re the primary check on the judicial system, both in terms of reviewing decisions of lower courts and setting the tone for what’s expected throughout the judiciary. There are a lot of cases that we simply don’t review: municipal, magistrate, juvenile, probate – every now and then something might trickle up, but for the most part they [lower courts] follow by example. So we have to set the tone here. We do review the decisions of the Court of Appeals and the trial courts. We’re the final voice of the case in 99.9 percent of the cases – every now and then there is a review by the U.S. Supreme Court, but that’s fairly rare.
GT: Tell us more about the cases you hear.
Melton: The kinds of cases that come to us because we – rather than the Court of Appeals – have jurisdiction over them are any questions dealing with the constitution. Election cases come to us, and murder cases, including death penalty cases. In murder cases if the convicted defendant wants to appeal, they appeal directly to us. They have that right. In death penalty cases, it’s appealed no matter what. We review decisions out of the Court of Appeals. They have to petition for cert [certiorari – a request for review]. It could be a zoning case, divorce case, a contract, could be anything the Court of Appeals felt like we need to take a look at.
GT: How does the court interface with other branches of government?
Melton: It’s a dance. It’s a relationship. We are separate, and we are also part of the system of checks and balances. We have the formal role of determining whether the legislation passed by the legislature is constitutional, where that is challenged. We are charged with giving full meaning to legislation that they pass and making sure it is applied fairly and squarely.
Then we have to ask for money. We submit a budget request to the legislature. They are very involved with how we spend our funds. They are a check and balance, to make sure we spend our funds in a responsible manner, and we have to make clear to the legislature that we understand that role and are cooperative in helping them have assurances that their money is well spent.
GT: Is it a cordial relationship?
Melton: Yes. It has not always been cordial; but I would say at this moment in time, yes, it is cordial.
GT: Is the court political?
Melton: There is some aspect of that. Of course what we try to do is to take the politics out of what we do. We run for re-election, and there is some awareness that we have to get votes to keep our job; but we use that awareness as a calling, as a charge to make sure that even though we have to get votes to keep our jobs, we don’t want to make decisions on that basis. We work hard not to be motivated by politics or personal philosophies or anything along those lines. Just as important, we work hard to convince the bar and the public that we are really trying to call balls and strikes fairly and squarely.
GT: The U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts surprised some court watchers last fall when he was publicly critical of President Trump’s reference to “Obama judges.” Did that surprise you?
Melton: I try not to be surprised by much. The judiciary plays a unique role. It’s designed that way. The legislature and members that serve are placed in a position to be responsive to the electorate. The courts are designed to be above that – to be above the fray, to be unmoved by public opinion and be driven by the rule of law.
Inherent in that becomes this tension. The legislature and executive branch generally know that they need to follow the law, need to follow the courts. When they have to follow the courts in unpopular decisions, they have to have somebody to blame. We on the court know that from time to time elected officials will blame the courts for making them do what they need to do. It’s important for us to play that role, to be the folks that they point to. It goes with the job.
GT: During the Kavanaugh hearings last fall, there was talk of judicial temperament.
How do you define that?
Melton: It is a broad term. You know it when you see it. Judicial temperament means the way the judge interacts with the litigants and the parties. It signals to those involved that the judge respects them as individuals and respects the issues they are wrestling with – the impact it has in their sphere of influence and their personal lives and more generally to the broader community. We signal to them that we are taking this seriously, that we are thinking about it and will make careful reasoned decisions.
GT: What does that require of a judge?
Melton: That means being patient, being patient and being patient. Especially at a trial court level, [for the parties involved] that’s the most important thing in their lives. For the judge, it’s just one of the things on the docket. A lot of times those parties aren’t in a hurry to get in and out. They want to take full advantage of their day in court. The judge has probably heard lots of cases like that before and will hear many like that again. So even though the judge might know where this is going and is ready to rule, that judge has to be patient and let it play out, so people will feel like they have had their full day in court. That’s a large part of the judicial temperament.
GT: Does that apply at the Supreme Court level?
Melton: At the appellate level, we have a clock. You’ve got 20 minutes. So it’s a little bit easier. But still we have to be thoughtful, respectful and dignified – not just how we interact with parties but also how we interact with our colleagues. It’s reflected in tone and tenor and what’s embodied in our dissent. There is some appetite for spirited dissent, but some lines we have to be careful not to cross.
GT: You have been on the court since 2005. How has it changed?
Melton: We’ve gotten a lot younger. When I came onto the court, I was 38. I believe the next youngest judge was probably 58. I was assigned immediately to the technology committee, to deal with technological issues because I was the youngest. I remember hearing conversations amongst my colleagues about Medicare Part D. Today our court’s a lot younger. With the newest justices that have been appointed, I hear a lot more conversations about youth soccer and recreational baseball.
GT: What about the judges’ qualifications and experience?
Melton: The judges we have are extremely studious, extremely talented, extremely smart – and our former justices were very talented as well. The resumes of my current colleagues, in terms of law review and standings in the class, are impressive. They are able to pay a lot more attention to a lot more details and talk constructively and intelligently about the nuances.
GT: What kinds of cases do you expect to come before the court in the next few months?
Melton: I think we are going to have some cases about the extent to which the right not to incriminate applies on the side of the road in DUI stops. We’re going to have cases coming down that kind of wrestle with some of those questions. [Editor’s Note: In February, subsequent to this interview, the court ruled unanimously that drivers who refuse breath tests cannot have that refusal used against them in court.]
GT: I can’t resist asking you about the ongoing water wars with Alabama and Florida. We are awaiting a U.S. Supreme Court decision. You were involved in negotiations during your time in the governor’s office. Why couldn’t the states come to an agreement?
Melton: What I learned was that all scenarios for a settlement were almost impossible to get final approval on by the governors of all three states. You are not arguing about the 80 percent or 90 percent of the time when there is plenty of water. You’re arguing about the historical drought that might happen somewhere in the future. What we were trying to do is allocate the pain that each state and the various stakeholders will suffer – agriculture, navigation, recreation, natural interests, wildlife.
Everybody sees how much pain they are calculated to get, and they all have the same reaction: Ouch. Why would I agree to sign? It just does not work. For a while the trial courts were the primary determiner of these interests on a case-by-case basis. Ultimately, we had this lawsuit now in the U.S. Supreme Court.
GT: Do you have a prediction on the outcome of the case?
Melton: I’m optimistic.
GT: You have a long history of community involvement, much of it working with young people – organizations like Young Life. Why are you drawn to that?
Melton: I find it rewarding when a directionless young man or woman finds direction. Everything changes, whether it’s school attendance or studying or being out too late at night, being in trouble at home. Once kids get direction, a lot changes.
GT: Do you see evidence of this in your work on the court?
Melton: A lot of what we see in our court are murder cases. Because of my work with kids, every time I pick up the file I start reading the plots. I’m trying to figure out how does this day start for these folks. Almost always, it starts without any sense of direction for these folks. It’s just a wandering, meandering existence where you’ve got to do something different than the day before. Before too long, you just find foolishness to get into. It may not result in murder or may not result in criminal activity. But there are so many ways for this “directionlessness” to manifest itself in negative ways that we have to deal with. That’s on the one side, but to see the light come on, to see the hope and purpose and excitement these kids can have about where they are headed – it’s worthwhile.