Retired Georgia Chief Justice Carol Hunstein
A life spent fighting and winning against polio, bone cancer, and sexism.
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Retired Georgia Chief Justice Carol Hunstein faced many obstacles in her life and legal career, starting with childhood polio, but she dealt with them head on and overcame numerous physical challenges and old school sexism to have a sterling legal career and serve as a role model for young attorneys facing challenges of their own. Hunstein was born in Miami and survived childhood polio and later bone cancer. After graduating from high school, she married and had a baby, but the marriage didn’t last. Then, as a single mom her bone cancer returned, this time taking her leg and nearly her life at the young age of 24. By chance, she met a man at her doctor’s office who headed a vocational rehabilitation program for the hospital. He asked her if she would like to go to college, and she said yes. He told her that she qualified for a program under which the State of Florida would pay for her tuition and books and provide her $20 a week for expenses. As a single mom, she supported herself and her son on the $20 per week and attended Miami-Dade Junior College and then Florida Atlantic University. She became the first person in her family to graduate from college. Such students are often referred to as “First Gen” students because they face unique obstacles in attending college, including financial struggles, and studies show that 89% of First Gen students eventually drop out of college.
Hunstein then attended Stetson University College of Law in the Tampa Bay area, where she was one of only six women in her law school class of 65 students, and she earned her JD in 1976. She married a law school classmate, moved to Georgia with him, and had two more children. She soon found out that law firms where they lived in DeKalb County (part of Atlanta is located in DeKalb County) had no interest at all in hiring a woman attorney, even just for title searches. So, she hung out her shingle and practiced law on her own, doing mainly criminal defense and civil litigation, for eight years.
After eight years of solo practice and growing increasingly tired of being called “little lady” by judges who referred to her male opponents as “counselor,” Hunstein decided to run for Superior Court Judge herself. She ran against four men and made it to the run-off. During that three-week run-off election, for the first time Hunstein began using the slogan: “This time, this woman.” She was elected as the first female Superior Court Judge in DeKalb County and later was the first woman elected President of the Georgia Council of Superior Court Judges.
In 1992, Governor Zell Miller appointed Hunstein to the Georgia Supreme Court, becoming only the second woman to sit on the Court. She was re-elected to that seat four times by the voters of Georgia. The most bruising of those campaigns came in 2006, when she faced a male candidate backed by an out-of-state business group seeking major tort reforms in Georgia in favor of business, a tactic that had succeeded in other states. The outside group spent nearly $2 million trying to unseat her. The lawyers in Georgia, however, rallied to support her as a fair judge, and her campaign raised $1.38 million, which was more than double the amount ever raised before for a candidate for the Georgia Supreme Court, and she was re-elected by the voters.
In 2009, she was unanimously elected as the Chief Justice to replace the Court’s first-ever female Chief Justice, Leah Ward Sears. Typical of her humility, Hunstein took a voluntary hiatus as the Chief for three months to allow Presiding Justice George Carley to serve as Chief Justice before he retired. Her term as Chief Justice ended in 2013, and she resumed her role as Associate Justice, retiring at the end of 2018, having served the citizens of Georgia well for 34 years on the bench. Her resolute determination in the face of multiple challenges — from polio and losing a leg to cancer, to attending law school as a single mom with little financial resources, to facing old school sexism in the practice of law and overcoming an attempt to unseat her by an outside, well-funded business group — made Justice Hunstein a terrific role model for many attorneys who were dealing with disabilities and prejudice in their own careers.