Georgia Supreme Court chief justice stepping down in July

Announcement surprises friends and colleagues, who laud him

Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Harold Melton said Friday the time is right for him to retire and explore a new direction in his life, telling colleagues and staff he will leave office on July 1, one year and two months before his tenure was to end.

“I do not now know what my next move will be,” Melton, 54, said in a written statement. “With this announcement, I can begin the search process in earnest.”

Those who know him well say Melton has never been overly preoccupied with tomorrow. That steadiness informed his 16 years on the bench, and made him particularly well-equipped to handle the havoc COVID-19 inflicted upon the judicial system.

“July 31 will mark my 30th year working in state government, 16 years with the Court,” Melton wrote in his statement. “Now is the best time for me to explore opportunities for the next season of life that will allow me to best serve our legal community and my extended family.”

The move was a surprise to colleagues and friends alike.

“I had no idea this was coming,” said longtime friend Randy Evans, a Republican operative appointed U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg by former President Donald Trump.

2020 was a stressful year, and Melton received plaudits across the board for his handling of the pandemic. He declared 12 emergency orders that suspended jury trials but allowed courts to maintain, through technology, essential proceedings. Through video conferences, Melton was able to keep the Supreme Court on schedule.

“This has been an exhausting year for him,” Evans said. “But he remained calm and steady. That’s how he’s always been.”

Practical concerns may also be guiding his decision. In his statement, Melton referenced that, starting in the fall, all three of his children will be in college. A move to more lucrative private practice would be seamless, said Stephen Dillard, presiding judge of the Georgia Court of Appeals.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a bidding war for his services,” Dillard said. “Before he was a judge he was an exceptional lawyer.”

Melton was serving as Gov. Sonny Perdue’s executive counsel in 2005 when an opening arose on the high courts. Evans said he recommended Melton, just to Perdue, and the former governor has remained one of his biggest fans.

“I cannot identify in my life a more fair-minded person than Harold Melton,” Perdue, most recently Trump’s U.S. agriculture secretary, said at a 2018 ceremony marking Melton’s ascension to chief justice. “There’s no drama. There’s just the integrity of a thought process.”

Melton took the oath that day from his predecessor and mentor Harris Hines, who, while a Cobb County judge, recruited Melton to serve as an intern.

The two men became close friends, and Hines’ death in a 2018 car accident took a heavy toll on Melton. He has faced other challenges as well while sitting on the bench, including a bout with cancer so severe that friends worried whether he’d make it through. But he did, with a seemingly effortless resolve.

“Georgians in every community have benefited from his steadfast commitment to the rule of law and public service, and I know he will continue to pursue those passions in the days ahead,” Gov. Brian Kemp said in a statement. The governor will appoint Melton’s replacement.

The chief justice’s colleagues paid homage to their quiet leader after hearing the news Friday.

“Harold Melton exhibits the finest attributes of a leader — he listens, he’s collegial, and he’s the consummate consensus builder,” Justice Michael P. Boggs said in a written statement. “His leadership has best been exemplified during the COVID-19 pandemic as he has led the state’s judiciary through unprecedented challenges. Above that, he is just a super person and will be sorely missed by his friends and colleagues on the Court.”

On Twitter, Justice Charles Bethel wrote simply, “I’d like my children to be like Harold Melton.”

A political future could also be in the offing. Evans said there was talk last year of appointing Melton to fill the remainder of U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson’s term. Businesswoman Kelly Loeffler was chosen instead but was unable to hold the seat against Democrat Raphael Warnock. That seat will be up for grabs again in 2022.

“Everything is an option,” Evans said.

Dillard said the court will miss his longtime friend’s careful leadership.

“He’s a judicial minimalist,” he said. “He goes no further than he has to go.”

Melton, said Dillard, “was the right person at the right time” for a court experiencing an ideological and generational reset.