Justice Carol Hunstein, Supreme Court of Georgia, December 2018 (Photo: John Disney/ALM) Justice Carol Hunstein, Supreme Court of Georgia, December 2018 (Photo: John Disney/ALM)

In 1992, then-Gov. Zell Miller voiced one concern when he interviewed now-Justice Carol Hunstein for an opening on the Georgia Supreme Court.

He knew it would be a dramatic departure from her work as a Stone Mountain Judicial Circuit Superior Court judge, seeing jurors, lawyers and staff in the courtroom every day.

“You’ll be cloistered there,” she recalled him saying. “Will you stay?”

“I promised him I would,” she said. And she has. Until now.

Hunstein will reach the state’s mandatory retirement age of 75 for appellate judges next year. So she chose not to seek reelection this year and instead will retire at the end of December.

The Miami native and Stetson University College of Law graduate looked back on her 42-year legal career in Georgia and before that her life in Florida, during an interview Thursday in her bare chambers. The books were gone from the shelves. The walls had only lonely hooks where pictures and plaques once were. All she had left to take home was the massive three-part antique replica partner desk she brought with her. She has used it since her days in private practice and through her tenure in superior court. It’s made to be shared from either side and has plenty of room.

Others have plenty to say about Hunstein, as well.

“It’s hard to imagine our court without her. She has been a fixture. And she has served the judiciary very well,” Chief Justice Harold Melton said Monday at the start of her last day of oral arguments. He told the group of new lawyers sworn in that morning, “I hope you appreciate the significance of this day.”

Justice Sarah Warren—the newest member of the court and the only other woman—also paid tribute to Hunstein that day.

“Personally speaking, I am so grateful for the trail she has blazed for me and for so many others. She is our colleague, she is our friend, and we will miss her terribly when she leaves us at the end of this month,” Warren said.

“Carol Hunstein leaves an indelible mark on the justice system,” said her friend Linda Klein, a partner with Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz in Atlanta and a former president of the American Bar Association. “For decades she has worked hard every day for the people of Georgia.

“Hard work comes naturally to her because she faced incredible adversity in her young life,” Klein added. “As a judge she has been a role model, leader and the epitome of fair. As a leader of many committees and commissions she was indefatigable in finding resolutions to assure the public could have confidence in our justice system. Every time she was called upon to do a difficult or politically unpopular job, she said yes and did it perfectly.”

Hunstein’s life has been full of challenges, starting with polio as a child, then later bone cancer. After she graduated high school, she married and had a baby. The marriage didn’t last. And the cancer returned, taking her leg and nearly her life. She was 24.

“But it turned out to be for my benefit,” she said Thursday.

By chance, she met a man in the doorway of her doctor’s office who headed a vocational rehabilitation program for the hospital. He asked if she’d like to go to college. When she said yes, he told her she qualified for a program under which the state of Florida would pay for tuition, books and $20 a week of expenses. She supported herself and her son on the $20 a week and attended Miami-Dade Junior College, then Florida Atlantic University. She was the first in her family to graduate college.

She went on to law school at Stetson University College of Law in the Tampa Bay area, where she earned a J.D. in 1976. She married a law school classmate from Atlanta and moved to Georgia with him. She had two more children. And she practiced law on her own—criminal defense and civil litigation—finding that no firm in town wanted to hire a woman, even just for title searches.

After eight years of practice—tired of being called “little lady” by judges who referred to her male opponents as “counselor”—she decided to run for judge herself. She beat four men to win an open seat on the DeKalb County Superior Court, becoming the first woman to serve there. She also became the first woman president of the Georgia Council of Superior Court Judges.

She was the second woman to serve on the Georgia Supreme Court. Miller appointed Justice Leah Ward Sears the same year as Hunstein. Sears retired after serving a four-year term as chief justice, moving on to private practice. Hunstein served a term as chief and stayed, true to the promise she had made to Miller.

Like Miller, Gov. Nathan Deal has appointed two women to the state’s high court. No other governor has appointed even one. But the first woman Deal appointed, former Justice Britt Grant, stayed just over a year. President Donald Trump nominated Grant to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit in April of her second year on the high court, and the U.S. Senate confirmed her in August. Deal appointed Warren to replace Grant.

With Hunstein’s departure, Warren will be the lone woman on the court. But it’s now a bigger Supreme Court bench, expanded by Deal from seven members to nine.

Asked Thursday if she ever expected she’d leave a court less diverse than the one she joined, Hunstein said simply, “No.”

She said it surprised her, too, that no woman qualified to run for the Supreme Court. Her replacement will be Georgia Court of Appeals Judge John Ellington, who ran unopposed for her seat this year.

Hunstein said she hopes Gov.-elect Brian Kemp, who takes office in January, will take inspiration from his three daughters and appoint more women.

She said it’s important to remember that “a lot has changed” since she started her career in the 1970s. Her law school class of 65 graduates at Stetson had six women. Today’s law school classes are closer to half-and-half.

“We have made great strides in equality,” she said, sitting at her now-empty partner desk. “Just give everybody a fair chance.”

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See a slideshow of moments from Justice Carol Hunstein’s career.