When Georgia’s top judicial building opened its bronze doors six decades ago, it did so to an all-white, all-male state Supreme Court.
And when the marbled structure wraps up its run as the home of Georgia’s highest courts this year, it will usher along a much more diverse panel to its plush new $132 million home down the street.
None of this is lost on Chief Justice Harold Melton, who is now the third African American – including one woman – to occupy the chief justice’s office in Georgia. Melton was appointed to the court in 2005 by Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue.
The building was christened back in 1956, just two years after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling that led to desegregation across the country. At the time, defiant Georgia officials vowed to protect individual rights against what they saw as out-of-bounds U.S. Supreme Court.
“We have grown to give real meaning to these very core basic concepts that when we say ‘individual rights’ we mean every individual,” Melton said.
Melton sat down for an interview with the Georgia Recorder to reflect on the building’s role in Georgia’s history as the state’s courts prepare to pack up and move into the new Nathan Deal Judicial Center, which is believed to be the most expensive state building ever constructed in Georgia.
Things are beginning to wind down at the current judicial building. The state Supreme Court held its last oral arguments there Thursday, with justices paying tribute to the building as they administered the oath to freshly minted lawyers.
Justice Robert Benham, who became the first black justice in Georgia in 1989 and who is the current panel’s longest serving justice, encouraged the new attorneys to view courthouses as more than just buildings.
“I hope you will take this charge and see the courthouse as a place where healing and reconciliation takes place,” Benham said.
The final oral arguments before the court involved two murder cases and a civil case from the coast where a patient has accused his doctor of giving him too much blood pressure medication, causing him to faint and fall from a deer hunting stand.
It was mostly court as usual, with the exception of perhaps a gentle reminder to an attorney to remove his water cup from the podium – lest he damage it before it can be relocated to the new courtroom.
Melton said he thinks it’s fitting to name the new building after former Gov. Nathan Deal, who pushed through criminal justice reforms that slowed Georgia’s incarceration rate and who championed the construction project. Lawmakers voted this session to name the building in Deal’s honor.
But Melton said Thursday he would advise against honoring anyone else in such a way.
“What the building represents is a nameless entity that speaks for justice for everybody,” Melton said. “It’s not something that is personified. That said, there is a man who has done tremendous work to cause our state to rethink how we deliver criminal justice and he has done a great job to make that building a reality.”
The new center, which is where the state archives once sat, was largely built because of security concerns at the outdated current location, Melton said. He noted, as an example, the old building’s proximity to the street, ever mindful that a parked U-Haul truck was behind the Oklahoma City bombing.
But the grandeur of the new building means something, too.
“I think it will speak to us on a daily basis, that there is a huge investment from the citizens of this state to make that building a reality and the citizens – through the Legislature – agreed to make that investment for a purpose,” he said. “And that purpose is to say to the court and to the litigants who come before us, ‘We expect great things out of y’all on a daily basis. Do not take it for granted. This is the constitution and the laws of this state that you are upholding. Make it happen and make it real.’”