Melton to step down after leading Georgia courts through COVID crisis

Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Harold Melton is stepping down after16 years on the court. Melton and former Gov. Nathan Deal collaborated on a wide-ranging criminal justice reform initiative over several years. Stanley Dunlap/Georgia Recorder (New Supreme Court unveiling, Jan. 2020)

Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Harold Melton announced Friday that he is stepping down on July 1 after spending 16 years serving on the state’s highest court, including the past year implementing a 2009 plan he led to keep the wheels of justice turning in a pandemic.

Melton’s announcement comes with a year-plus remaining on his four-year term, meaning Republican Gov. Brian Kemp gets the chance to appoint a new justice to the state’s high court for the third time since 2019.

Melton said Friday that he’s unsure what the next step will be in his career, but is ready to spend more time with family after 30 years working in state government. Melton was appointed to the Supreme Court in 2005 by Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue and became chief justice in 2018.

“This fall, all of our three children will be attending college at the same time,” Melton said in a statement. “Now is the best time for me to explore opportunities for the next season of life that will allow me to best serve our legal community and my extended family. I do not now know what my next move will be. With this announcement, I can begin the search process in earnest.”

Kemp said that Melton has been a beacon of honor and integrity during his decades serving Georgia. 

“Georgians in every community have benefited from his steadfast commitment to the rule of law and public service, and I know he will continue to pursue those passions in the days ahead,” the governor said. “On behalf of all Georgians, Marty, the girls, and I are grateful for his service on the Georgia Supreme Court and wish him and Kimberly well in this next chapter.”

Kemp has four months to appoint someone to fill the remaining 14 months of Melton’s term. It offers his third opportunity to shape the state’s high court in the past year after he appointed former state Court of Appeals Judge Carla Wong McMillian to replace retired Justice Robert Benham last March and Fulton County Superior Court Judge Shawn Ellen LaGrua in December as the replacement for Justice Keith Blackwell. 

Melton is the lone Black state Supreme Court justice since Benham retired after 30 years on the state’s high court.

Melton’s departure also leaves open speculation about whether a run for statewide political office is in his future.  Melton spoke with Kemp last year about applying for the U.S. Senate seat vacated by the Sen. Johnny Isakson who stepped down for health reasons. Kemp appointed GOP businesswoman Kelly Loeffler, who lost her election bid to keep the seat to Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock.

Ex-Attorney General Sam Olens, a Republican who has known Melton for 15 years, said he expects the chief justice to be successful in whatever his next venture will be.

“I think the sky’s the limit for Chief Justice Melton,” Olens said Friday afternoon. “If he chose at a later date to run statewide he’d be an excellent candidate that would have a lot of bipartisan support. I tend to think at the present this change is occurring more due to providing for his family.”

Melton, a Washington D.C., native, graduated from the University of Georgia School of Law in 1991 and spent years with the Georgia Department of Law before Perdue appointed him to the Supreme Court. 

Melton advocated for criminal justice reform in Georgia, which became a signature achievement of Republican Gov. Nathan Deal’s two terms as governor.

During Melton’s past year as chief justice, he helped Georgia court officials navigate a statewide emergency order during the COVID-19 pandemic, including changes to bond hearings, jury trial restrictions, and limiting grand jury proceedings for safety precautions.

Melton has spoken about the challenges that will lie ahead once courts fully reopen, as a large backlog of cases could play out for the next several years.

In 2007, Melton led a task force that two years later finished a 177-page guide on how Georgia courts should operate in a pandemic. The blueprint proved essential when he helped keep Georgia courts more open than those in most states. The Georgia First Amendment Foundation last fall recognized his leadership that preserved and protected public transparency through unprecedented challenges.  

“He has really been an exemplary figure with his leadership style being approachable,” said Richard T. Griffiths, president emeritus and spokesman for the First Amendment Foundation. “He’s been a uniting figure on the court.”

Olens said Melton’s quiet leadership style has influenced others to reach new heights.

“The individuals who accomplish great things without seeking credit are really the greatest gift we have,” he said. “You don’t show leadership by being loud, you show leadership by being consistent and caring. And that very aptly describes Justice Melton.”

Stanley Dunlap
Stanley Dunlap has covered government and politics for news outlets in Georgia and Tennessee for the past decade. At The (Macon) Telegraph he told readers about Macon-Bibb County’s challenges implementing its recent consolidation, with a focus on ways the state Legislature determines the fate of local communities. He used open records requests to break a story of a $400 million pension sweetheart deal a county manager steered to a friendly consultant. The Georgia Associated Press Managing Editors named Stanley a finalist for best deadline reporting for his story on the death of Gregg Allman and best beat reporting for explanatory articles on the 2018 Macon-Bibb County budget deliberations. The Tennessee Press Association honored him for his reporting on the disappearance of Holly Bobo, which became a sensational murder case that generated national headlines.