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George Carley will make history with some help from colleague




Soon George Carley's name will enter the history books as the only person to serve as the presiding and chief justice for both of Georgia's appellate courts.

Almost as remarkable is that he'll only be able to do it because of a selfless act by a colleague. Judges are not generally known to have small egos, but Chief Justice Carol Hunstein volunteered to temporarily step aside so Carley could claim the top post before his retirement.

"This was her idea. I would never ask her to do it," he said. "I could not serve but for her thoughtfulness."

Just as graciously, Hunstein said, "Sometimes it's easy to make the right decision."

Carley is the current presiding justice, the No. 2 spot on the state's highest court. In her absence, he presides during oral arguments and banc meetings with the other justices as they deliberate on cases behind closed doors. So, it's not like he'll have to do a lot of homework to take over for a few months.

Usually, presiding justices become chief justices when their colleagues vote. It's an informal round-robin that essentially gives them all a turn.

But Carley is nearly 75, prompting him to retire at the end of his current term or give up his pension under state law. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states can't make anyone retire, but they can give them a strong incentive to.

His retirement is setting up a very rare election for an open seat on the state's top bench. Historically, chief justices step down mid-term when their tenure as top justice ends, giving governors the opportunity to appoint someone to complete that six-year term and become the incumbent in the next election.

That's what happened when Leah Sears wound up her period as chief, and Gov. Sonny Perdue appointed David Nahmias who later won election to a full term.

Carley joined the Supreme Court at the wrong part of the cycle for his age, meaning he couldn't make it to his turn as chief.

He won't be the first temporary chief justice. In 1992, Chief Justice Harold Clarke briefly passed the gavel to an ailing Charles Weltner.

Hunstein calls Carley a wonderful judge who deserves to be chief.

"He's exceedingly bright. He's very committed. He works long, hard hours," she said. "He loves the court."

When asked in a separate interview about his legacy, he gave the same answer.

To appreciate Hunstein's gesture requires recognition that she doesn't always agree with Carley on the controversial cases. She's on the moderate-to-liberal end of the balance to his conservative end.

They were first acquainted when he served on the Court of Appeals and took a week each year to preside in superior courts to keep his hand in, including the DeKalb court where she was a judge. He'd like to continue as a fill-in judge on the appellate courts if the legislature funded it again.

"I always knew I wanted to be a judge," he said. "Until Carol came up with this, I put out of my mind to ever be the chief justice."

He's ruled on a lot of cases in his decades on the bench -- and even had one reversed on appeal. He refuses to pick a favorite because he says they're all the most important one to the parties involved.

Besides his conservatism, Carley has always been known as one of the court's most reliable questioners during oral arguments. He admits, "Sometimes I ask stupid questions," but observers say he usually gets right to the heart of the matter.

When he joined both the Court of Appeals and Supreme Court, "Both courts were known as cold courts," he said, explaining that the judges rarely asked questions.

The main reason they didn't is because judges hadn't prepared, letting the lawyers bring them up to speed.

Carley, though, has always spent hours studying the briefs and reading the files. When he joined the appellate bench, the clerk called cases in order and lawyers either showed up to argue them or they didn't. No one knew what to expect.

"I would spend night and day studying cases, and maybe half the cases would have oral arguments," he said.

Eventually, the practice changed to where lawyers had to request a hearing in advance and wait to be scheduled. Gradually, his work ethic rubbed off on his colleagues to where both courts are now considered "hot."

It could be argued that better decisions are the result. After all, it's not that appeals judges are necessarily the smartest lawyers in the state, but the process they use to debate and negotiate with one another to reach a decision is the essence of process. Oral arguments are where they first hear each other's thoughts and test them on the lawyers pleading the case.

So, when Hunstein and Carley describe his hard work as his legacy, it's not because they aren't creative enough to come up with something more interesting or that he isn't dynamic. It's because his diligence and preparation has indeed left a mark on both courts.

That's nothing flashy to write on a monument, but with Hunstein's acquiescence, history will have something to note, even if it's just that he served as presiding justice and chief justice of both the state's appellate courts.

Walter Jones is the bureau chief for the Morris News Service and has been covering state politics since 1998. He can be reached at walter.jones@morris.com, (404) 589-8424 or on Twitter @MorrisNews.



Web posted on Thursday, September 22, 2011













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