With approximately 30 years of public service – and over half of those serving on the state’s highest court – Harold D. Melton (J.D.’91) is embarking on a new chapter. His retirement from the Supreme Court of Georgia earlier this summer came with “no regrets” and a few insights.
Melton shared that one of the biggest misconceptions of the court is “the notion that it is where old lawyers go to retire. … Every judge who has come onto the court has been impressed, and often overwhelmed, by how much work we have and how hard we work.”
Acknowledging the fact the most people feel they work hard, Melton wanted to emphasize “just how hard the judges on [the] court work to get the answers right,” adding there is a lot of attention to detail, back-and-forth conversation and editing, in addition to a plethora of drafts for each opinion.
Secondly, Melton said that every now and then there are cases brought before the court based on the notion that “the requested path is the desired path” and it is up to the Supreme Court to make the ruling. “We really do not operate that way at all,” Melton stated. “We will take the path that the law drives us toward and if any lawyer wants us to get there then they have to tell us the nice clean path to get there.”
He added that at times the role of the court system is to “be the heavy” for “making the state do what [it] otherwise might not want to do but need[s] to do. [The court is] supposed to be unphased by public opinion – and at times that can be hard to do – but that is the role we are assigned to do.”
Melton said he has always enjoyed the work of the court, especially his service as chief justice since 2018. His role of leading the state’s justice system gave him “variety” and allowed him to get more involved in some of the administrative issues he felt really mattered.
“I really enjoyed working with the leadership of the various classes of court,” he said. “They were just really good professional soldiers who ended up being really good friends in the end.”
The whole world experienced significant change over the past 18 months due to the coronavirus pandemic. During this time the court system relied heavily on the pandemic bench book that Melton spearheaded the development of as a junior member of the court. The 15-member committee he chaired created a resource that included a survey of all of the applicable statutes, court rules and model orders that could be used.
He said the bench book “gave us a great deal of comfort” knowing it was “prepared in the coolness of thought” and would “help kind of guide us and get us started in the right direction as we got used to the new normals.” He added that it also helped set the “tone” on how to think through all the other issues that were not identified when drafting the materials.
Melton expressed a true sense of pride about “the way the courts and the bar held together” during the height of the pandemic. “That above all else was probably the secret sauce of our success.”
Among the most interesting cases he has come across during his entire legal career is Georgia’s water litigation with Florida and Alabama. He said he found it “absolutely fascinating” to see the ways that governors interacted with their state constituents as well as their agency heads who were central players in the water negotiations. Melton also noted how private stakeholders had varying degrees of strength within the states. “It was just a huge study in not just litigation but in state and local politics.”
He said his biggest stress reliever over the years has been going to lunch, adding “lunch is my hobby.” He said he enjoys just getting together and laughing with the other judges, attorneys and his assistant – even if it is just out in the hallway. “There is just nothing better than that.”
Melton’s next chapter will involve capitalizing on his strengths. Chief among those he counts is his passion for working for the state of Georgia and for serving the state. This will be a “very important factor” for him going forward. “I want to go to a place that will value continued service to the state,” he said.
Earlier this summer, it was announced that Melton would join the law firm Troutman Pepper as a partner in its litigation practice. The firm noted in particular it will benefit from Melton’s experience and expertise, particularly in appellate litigation and state attorneys general matters.