With the Friday deadline for nominations to fill two openings on the Georgia Supreme Court—whose only two women justices are leaving, and where the number of African-Americans has remained steady at two even as the total number of justices increased from seven to nine—diversity is on the minds of many watching Gov. Nathan Deal’s selection process.
“We hope that somewhere it resonates that diversity matters in how we make decisions from the bench,” said Rita Treadwell, president of the Georgia Association of Black Women Attorneys (GABWA), in an interview Wednesday. “We have highly qualified members statewide ready to serve.”
GABWA does not make nominations for judicial appointments, Treadwell said, but the group does make recommendations to the governor’s Judicial Nominating Commission, which will be interviewing candidates over the next month in preparation of a shortlist to send to the governor.
One of the reasons her group was formed was to increase black female representation in the judiciary, Treadwell said. The group also provides members with a training program for future judges.
One of the organization’s founders is retired Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears, now a partner with Smith Gambrell & Russell.
“Most Americans want to see a bench that includes some people like themselves; people who can appreciate their lived realities and who understand where they’re coming from. It helps to foster public confidence in our court system,” Sears said in an email Wednesday. “Diverse courts also underpin our country’s constitutional right to trial by a jury of one’s peers. In addition, on an appellate court, it really helps if the judges who preside over them have a multiplicity of experiences and perspectives from which to draw on in interpreting and applying the law. That’s why it’s important to have the presence of women and minorities. Their perspectives really enhance the quality of justice.”
Gov. Zell Miller appointed Sears to the Georgia Supreme Court in 1992. She was the first woman ever to serve there. She was only the second African-American, following Justice Robert Benham, who was appointed by Gov. Joe Frank Harris in 1989.
In the same year he appointed Sears, Miller later appointed the high court’s second woman, Justice Carol Hunstein. Sears retired in 2009 after serving as the first African-American woman chief justice of any supreme court in the United States. After she left, Hunstein was the lone woman on the court until Deal appointed Justice Britt Grant, who started in January 2017. Grant was one of two new members who expanded the court from seven to nine justices. She started along with Justice Nels Peterson.
Hunstein will retire at the end of this year. Her seat has already been filled by current Georgia Court of Appeals Judge John Ellington, who ran unopposed.
Grant is awaiting confirmation to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, nominated for the lifetime appointment by President Donald Trump.
With those two departures, the high court will once again be all male—unless Deal’s appointments in his final year in office include women.
“When the new justices are being selected for the Georgia Supreme Court—unless we’re willing, in this day and age, to once again accept an all-male court, which is predominantly white, that neither reflects the diversity of the population served nor that of the legal profession itself—diversity must be a priority rather than an afterthought,” Sears said.
Linda Klein, senior managing shareholder at Baker Donelson and immediate past president of the American Bar Association, was in Poland this week working on a rule of law program, but she took time to address the issue of judicial diversity back home.
“Public trust and confidence in our justice system depends, among other things, on a diverse judiciary,” Klein said by email. “Our fellow citizens need to see judges who look like them.”
Reflecting the people they serve is especially important for appellate judges because of their high profile and the collaborative nature of their work, she added.
“Diverse judges encourage diverse young people to choose careers in the law and on the bench,” Klein said. “When it comes to appellate courts, diversity is especially important, because studies show that diverse groups make better decisions.”
The Judicial Nominating Commission has announced a deadline—Friday—for names to be considered. Anyone can submit a nomination by email to: email@example.com. Members of the State Bar of Georgia are permitted to nominate themselves.
The commission will provide each nominee an application package, will be due back by July 13. The JNC will meet to interview applicants sometime after July 23 at the State Bar of Georgia headquarters at 104 Marietta St. N.W. in downtown Atlanta. From those, a shortlist will be generated for the governor.
Former state bar president Robin Frazer Clark, a trial lawyer with her own firm, took time out from a family vacation to address the topic.
“It is, without question, imperative that our bench reflect the natural and inherent diversity of our beloved state,” she said by email. “When the bench is reflective of our diverse citizenry, there is greater confidence in the court’s rulings. Greater confidence in the bench’s rulings results in greater acceptance of its authority. Greater acceptance of the Court’s authority directly results in appreciation of the Rule of Law. This is a good thing.”
On the argument that prioritizing the candidacies women and people of color could sacrifice quality, Clark said: “We need both diversity AND excellence on the bench, and there are certainly enough female and minority lawyers in Georgia who should offer themselves for service on our highest court.”
And she handed responsibility to applicants in the process, adding, “I encourage more trial lawyers who have experience in trying cases who are minorities and women to offer themselves for this great service to our justice system and our state.”