Governor Nathan Deal on Monday named Court of Appeals Judge Keith Blackwell as his pick for the state Supreme Court.
Blackwell has been a judge since Governor Sonny Perdue appointed him to the appeals court 20 months ago. He will replace George Carley, who is retiring from the court July 17.
Blackwell will be sworn in to the new job on July 19, according to the governor’s announcement. Blackwell is Deal’s first Supreme Court pick.
By plucking Blackwell from the state Court of Appeals, Deal will get to choose Blackwell’s replacement on that court. The governor made his first appellate court appointment in December, when he named Michael Boggs to the Court of Appeals.
At 36, Blackwell brings to the job a mix of youth and serious manner, political work and strong academic credentials. He worked on Deal’s gubernatorial campaign before being tapped for the bench in 2010; he also clerked for a federal appeals court judge and says he finished first in his law school and undergraduate classes at the University of Georgia.
Passed over for the job were six others put on a short list by Deal’s Judicial Nominating Commission: DeKalb County Superior Court Judge Cynthia “C.J.” Becker; Elizabeth “Lisa” Branch, a litigator at Smith, Gambrell & Russell; Michael Brown, co-leader of Alston & Bird’s Government and Internal Investigations Group; Gwinnett County Superior Court Judge William “Billy” Ray Jr.; Macon Superior Court Judge Tilman “Tripp” Self III; and Henry County State Court Chief Judge Ben Studdard III. A spokeswoman for Deal, Stephanie Mayfield, confirmed Deal personally interviewed all seven finalists.
The Supreme Court also-rans may have a chance for Blackwell’s seat on the appeals court. Deal’s spokeswoman said the JNC will open its application process for two weeks so that candidates who didn’t apply for the Supreme Court opening may apply for the Court of Appeals.
Unlike the announcement of Perdue’s selection of David Nahmias for the Supreme Court in 2009, Deal made his announcement via press release, with no live press conference.
“The Supreme Court will benefit from Judge Blackwell’s experience on both sides of the bench,” Deal said in the release. “His intelligence, many years of experience and dedicated commitment to public service will serve Georgians well in his new role on our state’s highest court.”
Blackwell didn’t make himself available for interviews on Monday. The governor’s press release quoted Blackwell as saying, “I have given my word to Governor Deal, and I give my word to the citizens of this state, that every day and in every case, I will adhere to the high standards of impartiality, independence and integrity that Georgians rightfully expect of their judges; that I will faithfully apply the law as it is, not as I might wish it to be; and that I will respect the separation of powers.”
Blackwell was born in Canton and grew up in nearby Ball Ground, a small Cherokee County town. The son of a teacher and aircraft mechanic and technician with the Georgia Air National Guard, Blackwell has said he had a lot of military and law enforcement people in his family — and no lawyers — and initially planned to return home after law school to become a prosecutor. During school and in the summers, he interned with district attorney offices in North Georgia.
But he was on the Georgia Law Review at UGA. And, he has said, his professors encouraged him to apply for a judicial clerkship. He landed a position with J.L. Edmondson on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.
That’s the same judge for whom Ryan Teague, Deal’s executive counsel, clerked. And, speaking at Blackwell’s 2010 swearing-in, the usually-reticent Edmondson said out of the approximately 80 law clerks who had worked for him, no more than one or two were as talented as Blackwell.
Blackwell has said the clerkship gave him a broader exposure to other areas of the law. After his clerkship, Blackwell went to work as an associate at Alston & Bird. He stayed there about three years, then took a job as an assistant district attorney in Cobb County. A couple of years later, he returned to private practice, joining Parker, Hudson, Rainer & Dobbs. He became a partner there in 2009.
Meanwhile, Blackwell was making political connections. He was president of the Atlanta lawyers’ chapter of the Federalist Society from 2007 to 2010. He volunteered as a lawyer for the state Republican party, and Perdue put him on the JNC in 2009. He worked on John McCain’s presidential campaign and chaired the Lawyers for Deal committee during Deal’s gubernatorial campaign until Perdue tapped him for the appeals court.
Also before joining the appeals bench, Blackwell was part of the team appointed by Perdue to represent the governor in a challenge to the federal health care overhaul. (The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule on that case on Thursday.)
When Perdue tapped Blackwell for the appeals court in 2010, Blackwell responded to grumbling about his being a political insider by saying it was natural for someone interested in public policy to be involved in politics.
After his 2010 appointment, Blackwell also addressed questions about his relative lack of experience before the state appeals court, saying he had a wide breadth of experience handling criminal matters, product liability lawsuits and business disputes. He has also tried a murder case.
As an appeals court judge, Blackwell has won some validation from the court he will soon join. In Hawkins v. State, 307 Ga. App. 253 (2010), a case about police searches of cellphones, Blackwell wrote a majority opinion that sided with police, and the state high court upheld that decision unanimously. In another case, Georgia Society of Ambulatory Surgery Centers v. Georgia Department of Community Health, 309 Ga. App. 31 (2011), Blackwell wrote a dissent siding with the state Department of Community Health in a dispute with a group of surgery centers; again, the high court endorsed Blackwell’s view, this time overturning the Court of Appeals.
Atlanta lawyer Robert Highsmith, a member of the JNC, said Blackwell’s Supreme Court interview “was among the very, very best of the day, and his intellect and command of the law and presence were stunning.” Asked about Blackwell’s having not been a trial court judge, Highsmith said the new appointee has “done everything but that.”
“Someone with his intellect and encyclopaedic command on the law — he’s just going to be a fabulous asset to the Georgia Supreme Court,” Highsmith said.
Another JNC member, Statesboro attorney James “Jimmy” Franklin, said in a written statement that Blackwell will make an “outstanding” justice.
“His intellect, work ethic and experience, both as a practicing attorney and appellate Judge, will serve him and the people of Georgia well,” said Franklin. “The Governor is to be complimented for his dedication and commitment to the nominating process.”
Blackwell won’t be the youngest person ever to serve on the state’s highest court. That distinction goes to former Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears, who in 1992 was appointed to the court by Governor Zell Miller when she was several months shy of her 37th birthday. Blackwell turns 37 next week.
Carley has been serving a brief term as the court’s chief justice, but, unlike the U.S. Supreme Court, the chief is not chosen by the executive branch and confirmed by the legislature. Instead, the Georgia high court selects its own leader from within, traditionally by seniority.
Former Chief Justice Carol Hunstein is expected to resume her tenure as chief when Carley steps down next month.
Carley issued a written statement welcoming Blackwell on behalf of the court and calling him “eminently qualified” for his new job.