Alyson Palmer, Daily Report
October 14, 2015
Gov. Nathan Deal is expected to interview 11 candidates for three new positions on the state Court of Appeals next week.
The finalists, picked by his Judicial Nominating Commission, include veteran trial court judges as well as 30-something upstarts with sterling résumés. The short list allows Deal to select someone well known by the state's lawyers—or somebody better known by him.
The state Legislature this year created the three new judgeships, effective Jan. 1. The expansion of the court from 12 to 15 is supposed to ease the caseload of the court, which has fewer judges than intermediate appellate courts of states with similar population sizes. Deal also has named a commission to study shifting jurisdiction over certain types of cases from the Supreme Court to the Court of Appeals and expressed interest in adding two members to the seven-justice Supreme Court.
According to his executive counsel, Deal plans to interview the finalists on Oct. 22 and will announce his appointments by mid-November.
In remarks earlier this year, Deal hinted that his appointees to the new Court of Appeals positions may be young. By far, the youngest of the 11 are Georgia Solicitor General Britt Grant, Appalachian Circuit Superior Court Judge Amanda Mercier, the Georgia university system's top lawyer, Nels Peterson, and Mountain Circuit District Attorney Brian Rickman. Those four are 40 or younger, while the other finalists are in their 50s or 60s.
Deal also has an unabashed penchant for the "two-fer": promoting a trial court judge so that he can pick that judge's successor. The list includes six judges in addition to Mercier: Joe Bishop of the Patula Circuit, Stephen Kelley of the Brunswick Circuit, Lawton Stephens of the Western Circuit and Ural Glanville, Eric Richardson and Gail Tusan of Fulton County.
Deal has been scrutinized for his record on diversity in judicial appointments, and the three Fulton judges are all black. The lone private practitioner on the short list is Charles "Buck" Ruffin, a former State Bar of Georgia president.
As part of the vetting process, would-be judges must complete an application form for the JNC, which asks for biographical information and practice highlights. Here is a closer look at the finalists, with much of the information drawn from their applications:
Joe Bishop, 58, is the chief Superior Court judge for the Pataula Circuit in southwest Georgia.
Bishop was born in Stewart County and grew up in the Albany area. He attended Valdosta State University, where he was president of the Student Government Association. He received his law degree from the University of Georgia.
Prior to joining the bench, Bishop practiced law in a small firm in Dawson. He also has served as a county juvenile court judge. Gov. Zell Miller appointed him to the Superior Court in 1991.
As a judge, Bishop has handled capital and noncapital habeas cases, given that his circuit includes a state prison. He has presided over one death penalty trial, a prosecution for the killing of the longtime local NAACP president, which resulted in a life sentence from the jury. He also has presided over a multiweek asbestos products liability case; the judge dismissed some defendants from the case, and the jury returned a defense verdict as to the others.
Bishop chaired the Council of Superior Court Judges' accountability courts committee and has been named to the initial executive committee of the Council of Accountability Court Judges. He worked to establish the circuit's felony drug court and an accountability court designed to aid parents who are obligated to pay child support. (The governor is a proponent of accountability courts.)
He is an Eagle Scout and was part of the delegation that delivered the Boy Scouts' annual report to President Gerald Ford in the Oval Office in 1976. As a teenager, he won two national speech contests.
Ural Glanville, 53, has continued his military service even after his election to the Fulton Superior Court bench in 2004.
The Ohio native received both his undergraduate and law degrees from UGA. He practiced on his own and with Arrington & Hollowell, and he prosecuted in Fulton and DeKalb counties. He become a Fulton magistrate in 1995.
A longtime Army lawyer who currently carries the rank of brigadier general, Glanville has in recent years served in Kuwait and Afghanistan. Last year, he presented to the state's two appellate courts American flags that flew in Kabul while he was serving there.
Last year, Glanville presided over a jury trial in a whistleblower suit brought against the state ethics commission by its former executive director, Stacey Kalberman. She successfully claimed that she had been fired in retaliation for continuing to probe Deal's campaign spending after being warned off by commissioners. Glanville quashed a subpoena for Deal's appearance, but after trial the judge sanctioned Kalberman's successor and the attorney general's office $10,000 each for alleged withholding of evidence.
Britt Grant, 37, is an Atlanta native who spent time in the corridors of power in Washington before coming home to make her mark.
After college at Wake Forest University, Grant began her career as an aide to then-Congressman Deal. She then took on jobs in the administration of President George W. Bush, working in the White House at the time of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
She traveled across the country to attend law school at Stanford University, but kept her foot in politics. She was president of her school's chapter of the Federalist Society and, through an externship with the Department of Justice, researched legal issues related to the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito.
She clerked for Judge Brett Kavanaugh of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit—a young, conservative star. For about four years, she was an associate at Kirkland & Ellis in Washington.
In 2012, Attorney General Sam Olens hired Grant to replace Nels Peterson as his counsel for legal policy, when Olens promoted Peterson to solicitor general. Olens has credited Grant with shepherding regulations of pain management clinics through the General Assembly, as well as settling lawsuits that would have stood in the way of the deepening of the Savannah port and helping to set up a new Medicaid Fraud Control Unit in his office.
At the beginning of this year, when Peterson moved to the university system, Olens made Grant solicitor general, giving her supervisory authority over all of the state's appellate litigation. Not long after that promotion, she handled the state's successful oral argument defending the state agriculture commissioner's authority to mandate a "pack date" for Vidalia onions. She also is supervising the state's interstate litigation over the waters of the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin, managing outside counsel.
Stephen Kelley, 54, was the district attorney for the Brunswick Judicial Circuit for 13 years before being appointed to the Superior Court by Gov. Sonny Perdue at the end of 2009.
The Alabama native received his undergraduate degree in theology from Southern Adventist University in Tennessee before obtaining his law degree from UGA. He began practice as an assistant DA in the Brunswick Circuit.
As DA, Kelley brought a forfeiture action under the state's racketeering law against a businessman, Fairley Cisco, accused of cheating customers at the gas pump. In 2009, the Georgia Supreme Court declared the statutory provision used by Kelley to be unconstitutional because it allowed what was essentially a criminal proceeding without the usual constitutional safeguards of criminal cases. The Georgia Supreme Court later upheld a felony murder conviction obtained by Kelley's office against a doctor who was charged with overprescribing narcotics to a patient.
Kelley spent several years lobbying at the Capitol on behalf of the District Attorneys' Association. In 2009, he was named the Glynn County Republican Party's Man of the Year.
As a judge, he chairs the Supreme Court's statewide electronic filing steering committee. He also has presided over his circuit's drug courts.
Amanda Mercier, 40, practiced with state House of Representatives Speaker David Ralston before becoming a judge in North Georgia.
Born just over the border in Cleveland, Tennessee, Mercier is the granddaughter of Adele and Bill Mercier, who established the Mercier apple orchards in Blue Ridge. She attended college at the University of Georgia but went away to Syracuse University for law school.
Shortly after graduation, she joined Ralston's firm in Blue Ridge, later becoming his law partner. She represented clients in both criminal and civil cases, including domestic matters. In addition to her private practice, she prosecuted traffic offenses for the city of Elijay.
Gov. Sonny Perdue appointed her to the Appalachian Judicial Circuit Superior Court in 2010. Mercier is the presiding judge for the circuit's Mental Health Court. As recounted in local media reports, she is currently presiding over a high-profile sexual battery prosecution stemming from a high school after-prom party.
Mercier is a member of the Georgia Commission on Family Violence and was in Leadership Georgia's class of 2014.
Nels Peterson, 37, is—like Britt Grant—a big firm alum and former federal law clerk who has secured influential positions in government at a young age.
The San Francisco native was student government president at Kennesaw State University before getting his law degree at Harvard University. There he was executive vice president of the school's Federalist Society. Peterson credits his father, who served a stint as president of Georgia Right to Life, with cultivating his interest in politics and the law.
Peterson clerked for Judge William Pryor Jr. of the Eleventh Circuit before spending about three years as an associate at King & Spalding in Atlanta.
In 2008, Gov. Sonny Perdue tapped Peterson to be his deputy executive counsel, and Peterson took over as executive counsel in 2009. In the governor's office, Peterson took a lead role working on Georgia's water disputes with Alabama and Florida, and he says he also was involved with matters related to the loss of accreditation of the Clayton County School District and the Atlanta Public Schools cheating investigation.
After Olens was elected attorney general, he brought on Peterson to be his counsel for legal policy, then named him the state's first solicitor general. His work there included Georgia's participation in a challenge to the Affordable Care Act and an environmental case that led the state Supreme Court to expand the reach of the state's sovereign immunity.
In January, Peterson left the AG's office to be the chief legal officer for the state's university system.
Eric Richardson, 51, was appointed by Deal to the Fulton State Court in 2013.
A native of Syracuse, New York, Richardson attended college at the University of Rochester and law school at Cornell University. In between, he worked as a social worker assistant for the Syracuse City School District and owned a bookstore called Adventure Comics.
Richardson began his legal career at Latham & Watkins in New York but has said he was drawn to Atlanta, where his wife had family ties, by the prospect of a better quality of life. Richardson spent 11 years at Troutman Sanders, including seven as a litigation partner. His work there included defending a class action lawsuit against the state over the constitutionality of the foster care system in Fulton and DeKalb counties.
Interested in becoming a judge, he landed a job in the Atlanta city attorney's office. He was promoted to deputy city attorney for litigation, meaning he oversaw all of the litigation for the city, managing in-house and outside attorneys and developing the litigation budget. He credits his wife, former Johns Creek City Council member Karen Richardson, with helping forge his community relationships.
Richardson is a board member of Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation and Revved Up Kids, which promotes safety and self-defense for children and teens.
Brian Rickman, 38, has turned his prosecutorial skills on sitting judges.
Now the Mountain Judicial Circuit district attorney, the Athens native attended the Northeast Georgia Police Academy, then became an investigator for the Banks County DA while still in college at Piedmont College. After law school at UGA, he took a series of ADA jobs in northeast Georgia. He was in private practice for three years before Gov. Sonny Perdue appointed him to replace the retiring Mountain Circuit DA.
Rickman has assisted the state Judicial Qualifications Commission on investigations of judges and handled some of its prosecutions. He worked with former Attorney General Michael Bowers to prosecute Grady County State Court Judge J. William Bass Sr., who midway through his ethics trial on various charges agreed to a 60-day suspension and a pledge not to seek re-election. That deal was made over the objections of Bowers and Rickman, who said he should be removed. Olens appointed Rickman to investigate a probate judge-elect in Camden County, Shirley Wise, who agreed to resign office and plead guilty to taking money from vital records funds.
In recent years, Rickman has tried murder cases as lead counsel. He also notes that in 2014 he tried a two-week trial in which the director of the Boggs Mountain Humane Shelter was convicted of stealing donations and lying to donors about animal sponsorships.
Earlier this year, the Georgia Supreme Court said a murder defendant should get a new trial because his lawyer should have objected to Rickman's comments to jurors that the defendant failed to call police to report that he'd shot a man. Rickman said he had been trying to question why the defendant, who claimed self-defense, hadn't called 911 prior to the shooting.
Charles "Buck" Ruffin, 61, is an eminent domain and real estate litigator who was president of the State Bar of Georgia from 2013 to 2014.
Born in Savannah, Ruffin grew up in Vidalia and earned a business degree at Auburn University. Ruffin was president of the Student Government Association and interned for Republican Georgia Congressman Ben Blackburn. While working for Blackburn in Washington, Ruffin connected with Wendell Willard, now a Sandy Springs attorney and chairman of the state House Judiciary Committee.
After law school at Emory University and a brief tenure at the Atlanta firm Troutman, Sanders, Lockerman & Ashmore, Ruffin clerked for Chief U.S. District Court Judge Robert Varner in Montgomery, Alabama. Ruffin then joined Jones, Cork & Miller in Macon, where he became a partner. He opened his own practice in 1994, joining Gambrell & Stolz in 2003. That firm merged into Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz, where Ruffin is now a shareholder.
Ruffin's tenure as bar president included a symposium to observe the 225th anniversary of the U.S. Constitution, featuring speakers such as U.S. Justice Antonin Scalia. Ruffin also had to find a replacement for longtime bar executive director Cliff Brashier, who died in the middle of Ruffin's term. After some criticism of a lack of racial diversity on the search committee, Ruffin expanded the panel, which settled on Jeff Davis, then the director of the Judicial Qualifications Commission.
Lawton Stephens, 61, has been a Superior Court judge in Athens for more than two decades.
The Athens native went to college at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, then completed his law degree at UGA. He practiced at various firms in Athens, including Fortson, Bentley & Griffin and Nicholson, DePascale, Harris & McArthur, and was a part-time assistant solicitor, prosecuting cases in state court. He is the son the late U.S. Rep. Robert Stephens Jr., who also was an attorney.
Before becoming a judge, Stephens served in the state Legislature as a Democrat. Gov. Zell Miller appointed him to the Superior Court bench in 1991.
Stephens has presided over his circuit's felony drug court since 2011. He sat on the Chief Justice's Commission on Indigent Defense from 2000 to 2004 and chaired the Statewide Jury Task Force under an appointment by Gov. Sonny Perdue.
Gail Tusan, 59, is the chief judge of the Fulton Superior Court, having been a full-time judge since she was appointed to the Atlanta City Court in 1990.
Tusan received her undergraduate degree from UCLA and her law degree from George Washington University. In private practice, she worked at Kilpatrick & Cody; Asbill, Porter, Churchill & Nellis; and the Joyner Law Offices. She was president of the Georgia Association of Black Women Attorneys in 1983.
After lower court appointments by Atlanta mayors and other judges, Tusan was named to the Fulton State Court by Gov. Zell Miller, who also gave Tusan her Superior Court post. In 1999, President Bill Clinton nominated Tusan to an opening on the Northern District of Georgia bench. But Tusan removed her name from consideration a few months later, complaining that political infighting would delay a vote on her nomination until after the deadline to qualify to run for re-election.
When a family court was created in Fulton in the late 1990s as part of a pilot project, Tusan served on the steering committee and was one of the charter judges. The state Supreme Court recently affirmed her ruling in a financial dispute over two Ferrari race cars.
Having grown up in Southern California, Tusan has an interest in the arts, noting she enjoys performing with a dance troupe. She also has authored two legal novels.