The University of West Georgia brought to light the inner workings of the state’s highest court Tuesday night, with UWG’s Murphy Center for Public Service hosting students and community members for An Evening with Georgia State Supreme Court Justices.
“We were fortunate to have a conversation with these justices to take away some of the mystery that we perceive surrounding the court system, inform us on the judicial process and hear some off-the-bench commentary to better understand their work,” said Dr. Karen Owen, interim dean of University College and director of the Murphy Center.
Featured in the event were currently serving Justice Carla Wong McMillian, former Chief Justice Harold Melton and former Justice Keith Blackwell.
Each justice was asked to describe the most rewarding part of their service. Blackwell said that solving the intellectual, legal puzzles that are put before the court was one rewarding aspect, as well as serving alongside his colleagues on the bench and Supreme Court staff.
“Having benefited from all of the opportunities that our nation offers us, I believe we each have some obligation to give a little back to our community and our country,” Blackwell said. “Serving as a justice was an opportunity to serve my community, state, and nation and do a wide variety of challenging work.”
As a justice who is currently serving on the bench, McMillian described the day-to-day operations of the judicial process, saying that it differs greatly from what is portrayed in courtroom trials in film and television. She illuminated that a majority of a justice’s time is spent drafting and revising opinions, preparing for meetings of the court (known internally as “bank meetings”) and hearing oral arguments from attorneys and parties.
McMillian also spoke on the process of becoming and remaining a justice on the court, with the justices being chosen by popular vote in non-partisan elections.
“The non-partisan aspect of our elections is critical, as it keeps us out of the political arguments, which cause a great deal of turnover and turmoil in the judicial systems of other states,” she said. “It’s important for us to be elected because then you, the people, can hold us accountable.”
As chief justice of the court from 2018-2021, Melton had particular insight into how the court operated during the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic.
“Our overarching goal was that the courts do not close, as they play such a critical role in the daily lives of our communities, protecting the life and safety of everyone,” Melton said. “We knew we couldn’t pause that on account of the pandemic, so we focused on the key issues that had to continue and trimmed everything else down to their essential elements to keep the courts open.”
The evening was the first event in the Murphy Center’s Distinguished Lecture Series, which will continue with two more public events later this fall: a Public Service Conversation with Georgia College and State University President Cathy Cox on Oct. 17 and a discussion on “Georgia: Battleground/Swing State?” with Atlanta-Journal Constitution journalist Greg Bluestein and University of Georgia political scientist Dr. Charles Bullock III on Nov. 14.
“This series strives to carry forth the legacy of Speaker Thomas B. Murphy, who served Georgia as the longest-serving speaker of the state House of Representatives and advocated for societal change through personal responsibility and the mechanisms of governmental institutions,” Owen said. “These are awesome opportunities in which we can meet and learn from great leaders of our state, and when we leave, we are hopeful of how each one of us can make a difference in society: locally, regionally, nationally and globally.”