2012 Newsmaker of the Year: The Judgemaker
On pace to choose a record number of judges, Governor Nathan Deal talks about how he interviews candidates and responds to criticism about a lack of diversity in his appointments
During the State Bar of Georgia's annual conference this past summer at a resort hotel on the Savannah River, the talk wasn't tort reform or billable hours or even golf. Rather, the buzz was building around whom Governor Nathan Deal would name as his first state Supreme Court justice.
Deal wasn't at the conference, but almost every hallway and dinner table conversation eventually turned toward handicapping his pick for the court.
Now, as Deal is poised to name his fifth appellate judge in less than two years, it's clear that his imprint on the state's judiciary will be a major part of his legacy.
Since taking office in January 2011, Deal has made judicial appointments at a record pace, averaging more than one every three weeks.
His 39 appointments, including one to the Supreme Court and four to the Court of Appeals, put him on track to double the number of judges appointed by Roy Barnes and Sonny Perdue over comparable periods. At this pace, he would even surpass the 127 appointments Zell Miller made over two terms.
Deal is filling the courts with judges who carry conservative and GOP credentials while swatting away criticism that he hasn't been proactive in finding enough minorities and woman for the bench. Deal's push only two years into his tenure to leave his mark on the state's judiciary makes him the Daily Report's Newsmaker of the Year.
The volume of appointments, to be sure, isn't entirely at the control of Deal. He gets the opportunity fill bench seats only when a judge leaves office before the end of his or her term or when the General Assembly authorizes a new judgeship. Typically, though, judges retire only before the end of their elected terms because they want to give the governor the right to appoint their successors, knowing that incumbent judges normally win re-election in the rare event they are challenged. Openings also have been created by Judicial Qualification Commission investigations that prompted the resignations of eight judges and Deal's penchant for selecting sitting judges for higher court seats, thus creating two openings where there was one.
The best example of Deal's leveraging of appointments was his elevation of Court of Appeals Judge Keith Blackwell to the Georgia Supreme Court this past summer, the appointment that was the subject of speculation at the Bar conference.
Gwinnett Superior Court Judge William "Billy" Ray II moved up to Blackwell's spot on the Court of Appeals and his opening was filled by Gwinnett Chief Magistrate Judge George Hutchinson III. Thus, one appointment became three.