Her Own Path

Daughter of Augusta Makes Judicial History

By Ryan Lutz  |  Photo by Chris Thelen

Born of the sun, they travelled a short while toward the sun 
And left the vivid air signed with their honour.

~ Stephen Spender, “The Truly Great”

The first time I ever met a judge, I knew I liked him. True, he was fictitious, but who could take exception to someone described as “a sleepy old shark” who “cleaned his fingernails with his pocket knife” and slowly munched on a long, unlit cigar during trials in his courtroom? I met Harper Lee’s Judge John Taylor when I was an eighth grader and remember liking the man pretty much only because he liked and trusted Atticus Finch, quite possibly the noblest and coolest attorney I’ve ever met, fictitious or not.

I had no idea as an eighth grader that one underclassman of mine (she was a sixth grader then) would one day rise like a new sun in a new day, slowly and splendidly, to the highest court in the state, the Georgia Supreme Court. When news that Gov. Brian Kemp had appointed the Honorable Carla Wong McMillian to that court reached me, a smile ran away with my astonishment — not because I had difficulty believing that somebody I knew had achieved such a feat, but precisely because I had no difficulty believing it. Nobody who knew Justice McMillian before she became known by that moniker would have had any difficulty believing it.

Part of the reason it was easy to believe that she had been appointed to the state Supreme Court was my recollection of her academic achievement at our high school, Westminster Schools of Augusta (known then as Westminster Preparatory School). I suppose even then I vaguely suspected that she was bound for greatness, as I heard her name frequently called at Honors Day, where accolades aplenty were accorded her. Looking back and then hurtling forward to the present, I get a happy thrill to see the congruence of it all, like  moving film coming into focus: In that past setting, honor was acknowledged in McMillian’s life as it was for everyone whose name was called — a certificate or plaque or some article to adorn the academic gown. Now, honor is a title accorded her by all those who must stand before her. She is “your Honor.” How fitting. After graduating at the top of her high school class, McMillian attended Duke University, where she graduated with high honors as a double major. (Incidentally, now that McMillian is a member of it, one-third of the justices on the Georgia Supreme Court are Duke graduates.) Then, the Blue Devil left Durham and headed to Athens as a Woodruff Scholar and became a Bulldog in UGA’s School of Law.

As important as academic achievement is, it alone does not make one great, despite the contrary impression that all those clicking camera shutters and hoots and hollers at Honors Day assemblies may give us — that it is the sole proof of greatness! Perhaps if I had had more time with McMillian in our Zoom meeting, I might have asked her to expound freely on greatness, but the memory of her large family directed me to a less lofty, yet no less important, question: What do you think most people who know the Wong family well would say is its characteristic strength? She took a moment to sort through the possibilities.

“You know, I think people think of the Wong family as being really hard workers — just doing what we need to do in order to succeed, keeping our head down. I mean, that’s what our parents — my dad — really taught us, work hard. Be the best you can be.”

Perhaps it seems antithetical at first — both keeping one’s head down and being the best one can be; after all, aiming to be the best often implies an ambition that pushes the chin up and out, like a runner straining to be the first to cross the finish line. The truth in McMillian’s case, however, is that though she had all the professional trappings of greatness, she admits that she had no ambition to be a judge.

“Because I never really thought I’d have the opportunity [to be one],” she said. In explaining why, she did not point to any ethnic or gender prejudice. Instead, it was almost as if she did not include it among the possibilities for someone with such a humble upbringing. Her grandparents immigrated from China to the United States in December 1915 (on the U.S.S. Christmas, of all ships) at a time when distrust of the Chinese was very high — evidenced in the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882-1943). The law made exceptions, however, for merchants, and this meant that her grandparents, who were grocers, could stay. And that is the simple life that her ancestors led here in Augusta as far back as 1928, a life characterized by striving for nothing more than what was necessary to be successful grocers.

I hesitate to say that this sort of humility and simplicity is not what most of us identify as an approach to success. Most of us probably suppose that a dash of cutthroat arrogance is necessary to get noticed, or just enough ambition, anyway, as will get one noticed by the governor, who appoints judges whenever there is a vacancy. It was not, however, striving to be noticed that landed McMillian her first judicial appointment in 2010 (by then-Gov. Sonny Perdue) to be the State Court Judge of Fayette County. Ten years before, she had been a partner in the litigation group of a national law firm with more than 300 attorneys in its five offices. “Ah,” you might say, “She was a hot-shot attorney in a big firm — that’s what drew the governor’s attention.” Well, maybe: You’re certainly no small fry if you can manage to be a litigator for a nationally recognized law firm for a decade. According to McMillian, though, it may have been something less exalted.

“You have to be a good lawyer, of course, but a lot of it [being successful] is being in the right place at the right time. As I said, I didn’t think I’d have the opportunity. My family — we’re not in the legal profession. I’m the first one. I didn’t have the connections; I wasn’t from Atlanta. Growing up in Augusta, I never wanted to make a name for myself, to be ‘a first.’ I just wanted to blend in like every other adolescent.”

Getting noticed, in other words, is at least partly attributable to something akin to luck, or, as one of McMillian’s close friends calls it, serendipity. This friend is none other than former Georgia Supreme Court Justice Leah Ward Sears, who in 1992 became the first woman and youngest justice to sit on that court, and who in 2005 became the first African American woman to serve as chief justice of any state Supreme Court in the country. The story of Sears’ rise to such prominence can be read in her biography, aptly titled Seizing Serendipity.

For McMillian, serendipity actually began with concern. A scandal was taking shape in Fayette County, where she lived, and McMillian grew worried about the county’s judicial system. She decided to put in for a trial court position. That’s what her “seizing” looked like, a choice prompted by concern — something so ordinary that it draws no attention to itself. In fact, if any ambition was at work in her at that time, it rose from a maternal spring.

“I wanted to be an example for my children, especially my daughter. I just wanted to show her that I was willing to take a calculated risk and seize an opportunity, and not hold back because I was comfortable in my position.”

If that “calculated risk” — a humble reluctance to allow complacency to win — is different from ambition only in name, well, so be it. But ambition has never appeared so attractive to me — precisely because it simply does not normally look like this, like humility. That was about 10 years ago, but it appears McMillian is still as humble today.

The last time Augusta supplied a judge for the state Supreme Court was 97 years ago, Joseph R. Lamar, so one could argue that McMillian’s appointment is, on those grounds, special — quite an honor for the Garden City. But there is a better word to describe her appointment: historic. She is the first Asian-Pacific American to serve on a state Supreme Court in the Southeast. On the day of her swearing-in, in March, McMillian put her accomplishment in a perspective that hinted at the humility she and her family have known and practiced for a century.

“Obviously, there are more important things happening in the world right now, but this appointment is an honor and a proud moment for me and my family. I am humbled by Gov. Kemp’s confidence in me.”

Appears in the July 2020 issue of Augusta Magazine.

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