In cool wind and warm sunshine, Gov. Brian Kemp gave the oath of office to three new appellate court judges Friday morning at a very safe social distance. Not even their shadows touched on Liberty Plaza outside the Capitol.
And just like that, Kemp gave the Georgia Supreme Court a new justice. Carla Wong McMillian is now the nine-member court’s second woman and first ever Asian Pacific American.
The governor also gave the Georgia Court of Appeals two new members: John A. “Trea” Pipkin III and Verda M. Colvin. Colvin is only the second African American woman ever to serve there.
The novel coronavirus pandemic shut down the traditional swearing-in ceremony—along with the entire state and its courts beyond essential activities. So instead of swearing in the judges in his ceremonial office or in the House of Representatives chambers as in the past, Kemp moved outdoors and across the street to the small park where he has held news conferences to talk about the public health crisis when weather permits.
“Good morning, everybody. I know that we are in historic times in our state, but this is also a very historic day—certainly for you all and for us,” Kemp said, his gray suit blowing in a gust. “I certainly hate these extenuating circumstances that we’re in, but we also need to get you sworn in where you can start preparing and going to work for the people of this great state.”
First up was McMillian, who is leaving the Court of Appeals after seven years. Former Gov. Nathan Deal appointed her to the intermediate appellate court in 2013. Before that, she served as a judge for the Fayette County State Court, appointed in 2010 by then-Gov. Sonny Perdue. McMillian was previously an associate and then a partner with Sutherland Asbill & Brennan. She served as law clerk at the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Duke University and J.D. from the University of Georgia School of Law.
Her husband, Lance McMillian, stepped forward with her to hold the Bible. Kemp had to ask them to come a tiny bit closer to move into the camera’s frame. But even so, the governor’s shadow did not quite reach the toe of the new justice’s modestly high-heeled shoe.
After she took the oath, McMillian thanked the governor and said, “This is a bittersweet day for me because, 30 years ago, my father died.” She has spoken and written often about her father, Charles Wong, a U.S. Army veteran of Chinese descent.
“I know he is looking down on this moment right now,” Kemp replied.
Next, Kemp swore in Pipkin, who leaves his current job on the Henry County Superior Court. Deal appointed Pipkin to that post in 2018. Previously, Pipkin served as solicitor general in McDonough. He is also an adjunct professor at Gordon State College. He previously served as assistant district attorney for the Flint Circuit District Attorney’s Office and as an adjunct professor of law at Emory University School of Law. He earned his associate’s degree from Reinhardt College, bachelor’s degree from the University of Georgia and J.D. from Georgia State University College of Law.
The order is important to the court because it determines seniority ranking. The judges use seniority to determine everything from how they enter the courtroom to how they choose their offices. The order was determined by the timing of the vacancies being filled, Kemp said. Pipkin replaces the late Judge Stephen Goss, who died last year.
So Pipkin will be senior to Colvin—though only by a minute or so.
Colvin steps into McMillian’s job on the Court of Appeals, leaving an opening on the Macon Judicial Circuit Superior Court. Deal appointed Colvin as a judge there in 2014. Previously, she served as an assistant U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Georgia, assistant district attorney for the Clayton County District Attorney’s Office, assistant general counsel for Clark Atlanta University, assistant solicitor for the Solicitor’s Office in Athens-Clarke County and as an associate for Ferguson, Stein, Watt, Wallas and Gresham. Colvin earned her bachelor’s degree from Sweet Briar College and J.D. from UGA Law.
With the new green leaves on the trees and the papers in his hands blowing in the breeze, Kemp offered no handshakes, only his congratulations and a promise to come together later on in better times.
“At the proper time when we are able, we’ll come back, hopefully when we’re not social distancing as much, and we will do an investiture with the rest of your family and friends. I know a lot of your colleagues that wish they were here with you today,” Kemp said.
The leaders of both appellate courts released statements welcoming their new members.
“I wish all of us could have been there to celebrate this historic moment,” Supreme Court Chief Justice Harold D. Melton said of McMillian. “We welcome her to our court and consider ourselves fortunate to have such an outstanding jurist, and a person of such high character and intellect, joining us.”
“We are delighted to welcome Judges Colvin and Pipkin to the Court of Appeals and look forward to formal investitures once we get to the other side,” Chief Judge Christopher J. McFadden said. “I am confident that they will prove equal to the challenges of this extraordinary time, and all of us stand ready to assist them in any way we can.”
The governor’s office streamed the event on @GovKemp Facebook Live.
It was over in nine minutes.