After three decades on the appellate bench, Georgia Supreme Court Justice George Carley had only a few months remaining before his self-imposed retirement date. Before his departure, his colleagues wanted to make sure he knew how much they thought of him.
They unanimously voted to allow Carley to serve briefly as chief justice of Georgia’s highest court before he stepped down from the bench in July 2012.
“I pledge that I will lead with fairness and integrity,” an emotional Carley said upon his swearing-in.
George H. Carley, 82, died Thursday of COVID-19 at Emory Decatur Hospital, Chief Justice Harold Melton said Friday. Carley is survived by his wife Sandy, his son George H. Carley Jr. and his two grandsons.
“We are devastated by the loss of Justice Carley, a beloved friend and colleague to so many of us,” Melton said.
Credit: Alyssa Pointer
Credit: Alyssa Pointer
Carley, who obtained his undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Georgia, was appointed to the state Court of Appeals in 1979. Former Gov. Zell Miller elevated him to the state Supreme Court 14 years later. His jurisprudence often found him siding with prosecutors in criminal cases and plaintiff’s lawyers in civil ones.
“Even though we didn’t have the same judicial philosophy, we had the same work ethic and love of the law,” said former Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears, a close friend. “I really, really not only liked him, I loved him. It was a joy to be around him.”
The vertically challenged (his words) jurist was quintessentially old school. He always wore a coat and tie, whether it was fishing at a lake or riding a mule down into the Grand Canyon.
“The mule didn’t mind,” he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in a 2012 interview.
One exception occurred decades ago when he realized he was having a heart attack at home one morning. After smoking what he believed would be his last cigarette and then shaving, he told his wife he was having a coronary.
After Sandy got him to the car, Carley, not wanting to die out of uniform, asked if she’d go back inside and get his coat and tie. Sandy rushed him to the hospital instead. Carley collapsed in the front seat on the way but survived – and had his signature coat and tie on again as soon as possible.
Carley attended UGA at a time when students wore coats and ties and said the routine just stuck with him.
“It’s strictly me,” he said.
Credit: Brant Sanderlin
Credit: Brant Sanderlin
He also never addressed anyone – save for his family, close friends and fellow jurists – by their first names. It was always Mr. or Ms., followed by their last name.
His never-wavering courteousness belied a keen sense of humor. He’d light up, his eyes sparkling, when hearing an interesting tidbit of gossip or when he shared his own amusing stories. He welcomed friends and colleagues into his chambers, with coffee on hand and china cups and saucers at the ready.
As a justice, Carley was workhorse. He rarely took a day off, coming in most weekends. About the only time he took a Saturday off was to attend a Georgia Bulldogs home game. His UGA ties — he had dozens of them — only fueled his superstitions. He’d wear the same tie week after week when the Bulldogs were on a roll and substitute in a new one when the team faltered.
Carley’s work ethic showed. During oral arguments, he was always one of the most inquisitive and well-prepared justices on the court.
When his colleagues overturned a criminal conviction or a death sentence, Carley was often the lone dissenting voice. He also dissented when the court declared a controversial law unconstitutional, saying his colleagues were legislating from the bench.
“I am not opining that what the majority has wrought today should or should not be done or can or cannot be done,” Carley wrote in dissent to a 6-1 ruling overturning the state’s anti-sodomy law in 1998. “I am saying simply that this court should not, and indeed constitutionally cannot, do it.”
At age 74, Carley had little choice but to retire from the court. Under Georgia law, he would have lost his pension if he stayed on after turning 75.
He was deeply touched when then-Chief Justice Carol Hunstein asked her colleagues to allow Carley to serve as chief justice before his retirement.
“It is only through her graciousness this has happened,” he said at his swearing-in. “I will be forever grateful for that.”
Just months before retiring, Carley told the AJC he would have liked to continue serving.
“I love the work,” he said. “I like deciding cases.”
But then, after quickly reflecting on his time on the bench, he said with a wide grin, “I got what I wanted.”