Justice Sarah Hawkins Warren, currently the only woman on the nine-justice Supreme Court of Georgia, chose service for her home state over a Washington, D.C., career and has Georgia’s legal battle with Florida over water rights to thank for the opportunity.
Appointed to the state Supreme Court by then-Gov. Nathan Deal and sworn-in Sept. 17, Warren, 37, occupies the seat previously held by her friend, former Justice Britt C. Grant. Grant left the state’s high court when President Donald Trump appointed her to be a judge of the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. As the Statesboro Rotary Club’s guest speaker Monday, Warren talked about her own career and the Georgia Supreme Court, and presented a slide show.
“This is a picture of our court,” she said in the middle of her remarks. “You’ll be able to pick me out because I’m on the back row in a black robe.”
That gentle joke was as close as she came to talking about the gender makeup of the court during her presentation. In answer to a reporter’s question, she acknowledged that she is the only female justice now but noted that there have been others. She is the fourth ever, on the court founded in 1845.
In fact, her service overlapped by three months that of Justice Carol Hunstein, who retired in December as the Georgia high court’s longest-serving female justice so far.
Hunstein, who eventually served as chief justice, was appointed to the court by Gov. Zell Miller in 1992 only a few months after he appointed former Justice Leah Ward Sears. Leading the court from mid-2005 until her 2009 retirement, Sears was also the first African-American female chief justice in the United States.
Grant, the third woman on the court, served from January 2017 until her appointment to the federal judgeship. She had also preceded Warren as Georgia’s solicitor general, representing the state government in appeals and multistate litigation.
So, for years there were two women on the Georgia Supreme Court. That was the case for a time when there were just seven justices, and remained so after the total was increased to nine justices in 2017.
But Justice John Ellington, from Soperton and previously a Georgia Court of Appeals judge, won an unopposed election in May 2018 to succeed Hunstein and was installed in December. Meanwhile, Deal appointed another man, Justice Charles J. Bethel, to fill another vacancy last fall.
A question after Monday’s meeting was, does Warren think there should be more women on the court again?
“I don’t think I can answer that question, but what I’ll say is, we have a tremendous court,” she said. “I have eight great colleagues, we have racial diversity, we have age diversity, we have geographic diversity, and I think there’s always room for improvement in the future, but I really love my colleagues now, and it’s a real privilege to work with them.”
Chief Justice Harold D. Melton, sworn into that role in September but a justice since 2008, is African-American. Justice Robert Benham, Georgia’s first-ever African-American high court justice when appointed by Gov. Joe Frank Harris back in 1989, is the court’s longest serving member but has announced he will retire by not seeking re-election in 2020.
As for geographic diversity, Warren had a slide. Two justices are from Cobb County, two are from DeKalb County, and Warren is the one justice from Fulton County, all in metro Atlanta. The other justices hail, one each, from the counties of Bartow, Whitfield, Pierce and Treutlen.
Another question from the Statesboro Herald was, does she aspire to follow further in the path of Grant, whom she called “a great friend and mentor to me,” from the state high court to the federal system?
“You know, I love serving the state and it’s something I’ve spent a lot of time doing, and I’m just happy to be here and look forward to many years of serving on this court,” Warren said.
To remain on the court, she will have to win a six-year term in next May’s nonpartisan statewide election.
Warren grew up in Atlanta, but went to Duke University in North Carolina, where she first attained a bachelor’s degree in public policy and Spanish, with honors. Then he worked for President George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign and in 2005 served as deputy press secretary for the White House Office of Management and Budget.
Next, Warren returned to Duke for law school. After graduating, again with honors, she served as a law clerk for a chief judge of the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals and then for a judge of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
Still in Washington, she practiced law as a litigation partner for Kirkland & Ellis LLP, a major international firm. She successfully pitched its services as outside counsel to Georgia’s attorney general’s office for the case Florida v. Georgia, the water-rights struggle between the states over the Apalachicola, Chattahoochee and Flint river basin.
Return to Georgia
As a rare “original jurisdiction” case that could only be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, this gave her the privilege of preparing arguments presented to the nation’s highest court.
It also resulted in many flights between Washington and Atlanta and confirmed how much she wanted to be back in Georgia, she said.
She returned to Atlanta with her family in 2015 and joined the office of then-Attorney General Sam Olens as deputy solicitor general and special attorney for water litigation, while Grant was solicitor general. When Grant was named to the state Supreme Court, Attorney General Chris Carr appointed Warren solicitor general.
“I realized that even though people didn’t always talk about state government when I was going through law school, that was something that I wanted to do,” Warren said. “I’d seen the national side and that was exciting, but to be home and to be working for my state in a way that really affected people on a day-to-day basis became very appealing to me.”
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.