AGE: 49

The small Georgia town of Brunswick might not seem like an obvious springboard for advancement. But Judge Lisa Godbey Wood, who has spent all of her career in or around Brunswick (population 15,000), has gradually become one of the most respected judges in her state — and, indeed, in her circuit. While all of the judges on this list are strong candidates for promotion to circuit court, Wood is already hearing appellate cases, sitting by designation on panels for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.

Wood first came to Brunswick in 1990 to clerk for U.S. District Judge Anthony Alaimo, a legendary Georgia justice. In his most important case, Alaimo spent more than 25 years overseeing the improvement of living conditions in state prisons. It was a topic that he knew about from personal experience. While a a U.S. soldier in World War II, he spent several months as a German prisoner of war.

Inspired by Alaimo and lured by Brunswick, Wood joined the local firm of Gilbert, Harrell, Sumerford & Martin, where she handled liability, employment law, medical malpractice, white-collar crime, and death penalty cases. In one notable case, she represented Firestone Tire and Rubber Company in a wrongful death action brought by the parents of a college student who died after one of the Firestone tires on their son’s vehicle came apart while he was driving. Media outlets sought the release of discovery documents after Firestone and the parents settled, but Wood argued that the documents should stay under seal because her clients had revealed trade secrets during the case. The media groups dropped their request after the Eleventh Circuit sent the matter back to the trial court.

In 2004 Wood was tapped to be U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Georgia, and two years later, she was nominated for the federal bench. Her caseload is split almost evenly between criminal and civil cases. In 2010 she sentenced a former gas station manager to 10 years in prison for his involvement in a gas pump – rigging scheme. She has also issued tough sentences in child pornography cases.

And for the past few years, Wood has also been participating in panels at the Eleventh Circuit. She penned a strong dissent when the two other judges on a panel found that police officers didn’t need a search warrant to enter a Georgia resident’s garage. Wood wrote that the U.S. Supreme Court had established that an attached garage was part of a home. The Eleventh Circuit later backed Wood’s interpretation in an en banc decision.

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