Interviewed for a Profile: Justice Sarah Hawkins Warren

Justice Warren is one of the newest justices on the Supreme Court of Georgia. Appointed by Governor Nathan Deal, Justice Warren was sworn in on September 17, 2018. Chief Justice Harold Melton recently appointed Justice Warren to head the Ad Hoc Committee to Prevent Sexual Harassment in the Judicial Branch of Government.

Please tell us a little about your background. Where did you grow up? What’s your educational background?

I grew up in Atlanta then went to Duke University for my undergraduate studies. I took a little time off from my studies to work in Washington D.C., then returned to Duke for law school. After graduation, I came back to Atlanta to clerk on the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. I spent a number of years in private practice as a litigator at a Washington, D.C., law firm and then moved home to Atlanta in 2015.

How did your previous jobs prepare you to serve on the Georgia Supreme Court?

All of my jobs have been helpful. Some people might joke that I have too many jobs on my resume, but I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of really great opportunities.

The jobs that have prepared me most are, first and foremost, clerkships with judges. I clerked for then-Chief Judge J.L. Edmondson on the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals and for Judge Richard J. Leon on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. Both of those experiences were formative. Clerking is an apprenticeship and a mentorship, and it is excellent training. I started to learn how to read statutes and how to interpret the Constitution and was able to observe judges every day. Clerking on the Eleventh Circuit for Judge Edmondson was particularly instrumental in the development of my career.

Working at a big firm was also helpful because I was litigating. I was an associate for many years and then a partner. That experience helped me learn how to try cases. Seeing all the component parts that make up a case gave me a better understanding of the law, and I gained confidence by developing cases over and over again.

But the other job most relevant to my current job was working in the Attorney General’s office. In 2015, I returned to Georgia to work for then-Attorney General Sam Olens. Litigating on behalf of a state is a remarkable experience. There are many issues that come up in state practice that don’t come up when you are representing private clients. I also had the opportunity to spend a lot of time thinking about the Georgia Constitution and the laws of our state. I started as the Deputy Solicitor General for then-Solicitor General Britt Grant, who later went on to the Georgia Supreme Court and is now a Judge on the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals. After about a year and a half I was appointed Solicitor General, the state’s top appellate lawyer. I was arguing, briefing, and preparing cases before the Georgia Supreme Court, the U.S. Supreme Court, and other state and federal appellate courts.

Being an advocate arguing before the Justices who are now my colleagues was a great experience and it helps me remember what it was like to stand at that podium, to be able to feel that same sense of dread or excitement or nervousness. And although it doesn’t affect how I rule on cases, I certainly understand and have some empathy for what it’s like for the advocate who is standing right there in front of us in court.

What motivated you to study law?

Both of my parents are lawyers. Neither currently practices law, but I remember as a kid they would say “you know, if you go to law school it will change the way you think.” So I always knew there was something to law school, some kind of analytical framework. That was something I was really interested in.

But really I just looked around and noticed that so many of the people who were leaders and servants of our community and our state were lawyers. So I thought, you know, if all of these policy makers, great communicators, civil servants, and leaders have law degrees, maybe I should get one, too. I went to law school and fell in love with the law.

What are your passions when you are off the bench?

Well, I have two kids and that takes up a lot of time—joyous time. I have a 2-year-old and a 4-year-old and they fill every single minute I am not working. There is a lot of going to basketball games, soccer games, ballet practices, and helping the kids get ready for school. My children are wonderful. We also spend time together as a family. My husband and I like to cook, so we try to come up with new recipes that allow the kids to participate in the preparation. We hope that by the time they go to college, they will actually be able to fend for themselves!

Who has influenced your career?

I’ve been really lucky. I’ve had a lot of mentors over time. First and foremost, my parents. I have incredible parents who were supportive and who encouraged me. They built the foundation—the character foundation—for my life. They expected excellence but also service, making sure that I always found a way to serve my community at every stage of life.

My judicial mentors are the two judges for whom I clerked, Judge Edmonson on the Eleventh Circuit and Judge Leon on the D.C. District Court. Each has been tremendously influential to my career. But I also have new mentors. For instance, Judge Lisa Branch and Judge Britt Grant, both of whom served on the state appellate courts here in Georgia before being appointed to the Eleventh Circuit, are good friends and also mentors. It’s wonderful to have a close group of judge friends that you can talk to and get general life advice from.

So far what do you feel is the most rewarding part of being a Supreme Court Justice? Hardest part of the job?

The most rewarding part is having a job that you really love, where you feel like you are doing something you were called to do, and where you show up every day at work and serve the people of your state. So many people have jobs they love but have to look beyond work to find ways to serve. I am incredibly lucky than when I wake up and come to work every day, I get to serve by showing up—so I take that very seriously.

The hardest part is that we have hard cases. Having a hard case means you have to spend time researching and putting in the background work and really figuring out what the law is and what the law says and figuring out how to apply the law correctly. And sometimes you are going to disagree with your colleagues. We try to disagree without being disagreeable. You make your case and you try to persuade. Maybe you succeed in persuading your colleagues and maybe you don’t. Then you have to move on to the next case because we have so many cases, so many hard cases. We give every case our best effort, then we have to move on to the next one and continue working as a body of nine Justices. It’s both hard and enriching.

Any final thoughts?

I love this job and am honored and humbled to have the opportunity to serve.