Justice a unique voice on high court

Georgia Supreme Court Presiding Judge George Carley, with wife Sandy, is well known for always wearing a coat and tie, including bringing backup ties to Georgia football games in case the first one proves unlucky.

Georgia Supreme Court Presiding Judge George Carley, with wife Sandy, is well known for always wearing a coat and tie, including bringing backup ties to Georgia football games in case the first one proves unlucky.

Published Nov. 24, 2009

George Carley knew he was having a heart attack.

It was 4 a.m. and the intense pressure on his chest could mean only one thing. But before telling his wife, Sandy, the Georgia jurist took care of some urgent business. First, he smoked what he thought might be his last cigarette. Then he shaved.

Only then did he tell his wife he was having a coronary, and she ordered him out to the car. But wait: He’d forgotten one other thing, he told Sandy. Would she go back into the house and get his coat and tie? Carley might have been about to die, but he wasn’t about to die out of uniform.

Forget it, Sandy said.

As she backed down the driveway, her husband collapsed, falling forward in the front seat. The last thing Carley can remember, before being revived in the emergency room, was Sandy screaming, “Don’t die on me now you bald-headed son of a [expletive]!”

Today, Sandy is grateful that he followed her instructions, and equally grateful that she didn’t follow his. For the vertically challenged (his words) Supreme Court justice, going to the hospital without his coat and tie marked one of the few occasions in his life Carley appeared in public without his signature attire.

The justice is quintessentially old school. He always wears a coat and tie — even if he’s riding a mule into the Grand Canyon. (“The mule didn’t mind.”) He also makes it a point never to address people by their first name. It’s always Mr. or Ms., followed by their last name. His exceeding politeness conceals a keen sense of humor.

Carley sticks out on the job, too. When the other justices band together to order a new trial for a criminal defendant, or to declare a controversial law unconstitutional, for example, Carley is likely to be the lone dissenting voice.

In these dissents, Carley often accuses his colleagues of legislating from the bench and substituting their own public policy agendas for those of the General Assembly.

“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.”

Atlanta lawyer Robert E. Hicks said Carley’s goal is to ensure that the public doesn’t lose confidence in the law.

“He’s ever vigilant and works as hard as he can to keep that from happening,” said Hicks, who has known Carley since the two men litigated against each other in the 1970s. “He’s keenly sensitive to keeping the law as pure as possible.”

7 days a week

Carley is serving his final term as a justice. Although he has never faced opposition during his three decades on the bench, he will not seek re-election.

Now 71, Carley will be 74 when his term ends in 2012. Under state law, judges cannot collect their pensions if they stay on the bench after they turn 75.

“I’m sorry that I can’t continue,” Carley said in a recent interview. “I love the work. I like deciding cases.”

He quickly added, speaking of his time on the bench, “I got what I wanted.”

Carley puts in full workdays and works most weekends, too. He’ll only take off a Saturday if he’s going to Sanford Stadium to watch his beloved Bulldogs or be with the two grandchildren he adores. Sandy routinely drops him off at the court after they attend early church services on Sundays.

That work ethic is evident in court. When the justices hear arguments, he is always one of the more inquisitive — and well-prepared — jurists on the bench.

“He’s got a twinkle in his eye when he’s up there asking questions,” Atlanta civil defense lawyer Tom Carlock said. “It shows how much he loves what he’s doing.”

‘Beautiful country’

Carley, an only child, was born in Jackson, Miss. He bounced around from city to city and on one occasion across the globe as his father, a public health engineer, took on new assignments.

When Carley was a teenager, his father was stationed in Burma. Because there were no American schools, Carley attended eighth and ninth grade at a missionary school in Mussoorie, the Indian city at the foothills of the Himalayas. On clear days, Carley said, he could see Mount Everest.

“It was beautiful country,” he said. “But it also made me love this country so very much.”

After Carley returned home, he graduated from Decatur High School and then attended UGA. There, he met Sandy, a high school senior from Macon, on a blind date.

They married two years later and will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary next year.

‘You did what?’

Carley attended UGA law school at a time when all students had to wear a coat and tie. “It just stuck,” he said. “It’s strictly me.”

He started out working in the title department at the Atlanta law firm Hansell Post Brandon & Dorsey but quit after only three months. “I hated being a deed dog,” he said.

He then worked briefly as an attorney for the U.S. Public Housing Administration. But Carley, who wanted to strike out on his own, made a unilateral decision on the day his only child, George Carley Jr., was born in March 1963. When he got to the hospital, he told his wife he’d quit his job.

“You did what?” Sandy replied.

At the time, she recalled recently, the couple had $34 in the bank.

Carley grew a thriving practice from his one-room law firm in downtown Decatur and in 1971 accepted an invitation to join the Decatur firm McCurdy and Candler as a partner.

By this time, he had become close friends with the attorney, banker and political strategist Robin Harris, now deceased, whom Carley considers his mentor.

(Carley now lives in Harris’ former home in Decatur. He and Harris shook hands on the deal, agreeing to let an appraiser they both knew determine the purchase price— another surprise Carley dropped in Sandy’s lap. “There’s never been a dull day,” she says.)

It was Harris who persuaded Carley to throw in his name when a seat opened up on the Georgia Court of Appeals in 1979. Carley said he had decided against it until Harris told him, “I’m telling you, if you put it off, it’s gone.”

Gov. George Busbee, whose gubernatorial campaigns were managed by Harris, put Carley on the bench; 14 years later, Gov. Zell Miller elevated Carley to the Supreme Court.

Justice Carley

As a justice, Carley has been as tough on crime — and criminals — as almost any prosecutor.

“I don’t see error — reversible error — as much as they do,” Carley said of his fellow justices, explaining why he rarely votes to overturn a conviction.

“But I call it when I see it.”

A stickler for detail, Carley demands that legal procedure be followed. On a few notable occasions, he has disagreed with rulings that granted prosecutors enormous legal victories.

In 2001, for example, Carley dissented when the court reinstated key evidence against two women charged in a child abuse death that prompted reform of the state’s child welfare system. Carley said Fulton County prosecutors failed to present critical testimony to justify a warrantless search by police.

The Fourth Amendment, Carley wrote, “has no exception for troubling cases and we should not let hard cases make bad law.”

In civil litigation, Carley often sides with plaintiffs. This dates to his early days as an appeals judge, when he wrote a landmark ruling in a no-fault insurance case that infuriated the auto insurance industry.

Good-luck neckties

Carley quit smoking shortly after his heart attack. His vision is now his primary health concern. A detached retina has left him blind in his right eye. Vision in his left is so poor he rarely drives.

“As long as I can read, that’s all I care,” he said.

Because, as he says, “I’m supposed to be reading nonfiction” on the court, he reads only fiction when he’s at home. James Patterson, Vince Flynn, Steve Berry, P.D. James are among his favorites. His Kindle e-reading device enables him to enlarge the print size.

When Carley steps down, he hopes to resolve legal disputes as a private mediator or arbitrator and perhaps serve as a senior trial judge.

Whatever he does, he’ll be wearing a coat and tie. He was wearing one of his three dozen UGA ties at the recent Auburn game, with a backup tie in his coat pocket if the one he had on proved unlucky.

When the Bulldogs quickly fell behind 14-0, Carley’s son sent a text message to Sandy saying, “Tell Dad to change the damn tie.” But Carley was already putting on a new one.

With the Bulldogs holding on for a big win, Carley said, the backup tie is now first team. He didn’t wear it for last Saturday’s stunning loss to Kentucky; he said he didn’t think he’d need it.

He was saving it for this Saturday, when he watches Georgia play Georgia Tech.