Governor Nathan Deal on Wednesday tapped Gwinnett County Superior Court Judge William “Billy” Ray II and Smith, Gambrell & Russell partner Elizabeth “Lisa” Branch to fill two vacancies on the state Court of Appeals.
Deal’s decision was unusually quick. A day earlier, his Judicial Nominating Commission had added two names to a short list of candidates to be considered for the appeals court.
Branch is the first woman appointed to one of the state’s appellate courts since Governor Roy Barnes put M. Yvette Miller on the appeals court in 1999.
Effective July 30, Ray will replace Keith Blackwell, whom Deal recently elevated to the Georgia Supreme Court. Branch will fill the opening created by the upcoming retirement of Judge Charles Mikell Jr., who plans to leave the court at the end of next month.
The JNC’s website announced that on Tuesday it had added former State Bar President Kenneth Shigley and litigator Mary Paige Adams of Atlanta’s Green & Sapp to the group considered by Deal for the Supreme Court opening that went to Blackwell. Shigley and Adams joined five holdovers from the Supreme Court short list: Branch, Ray, Alston & Bird partner Michael Brown, Macon Superior Court Judge Tilman “Tripp” Self III and Henry County State Court Chief Judge Ben Studdard III.
DeKalb County Superior Court Judge Cynthia “C.J.” Becker also was on the recent Supreme Court short list, but she withdrew from consideration for the Court of Appeals, according to the governor’s office.
A spokeswoman for Deal, Stephanie Mayfield, has said Deal personally interviewed all seven of the finalists for the Supreme Court opening. On Wednesday she said the governor had interviewed the two new finalists, as well. Shigley told the Daily Report that Deal interviewed him in a Wednesday telephone call, noting he was happy to be considered. Adams could not be reached.
Branch, 44, specializes in business litigation and government affairs. The Atlanta native is a graduate of Davidson College in North Carolina and was an editor on the Emory Law Journal.
She was a lawyer with the administration of President George W. Bush from 2004 to 2008, serving first as associate general counsel within the Department of Homeland Security, then as a counselor to the administrator within the Office of Management and Budget.
Branch has strong conservative credentials in addition to her work with the Bush administration. She is on the executive board of the Atlanta lawyers’ chapter of the Federalist Society and has been a member of the Republican National Lawyers Association, the National Rifle Association, and the Fulton County Republican Party chairman’s council.
After law school, Branch clerked for U.S. District Judge J. Owen Forrester.
Ray, 49, has spent much of his career as a lawyer in public life, first as a Republican state senator, then as a superior court judge. Born in Macon, Ray earned B.B.A. and M.B.A. degrees and his law degree from the University of Georgia. Just a few years out of school, he chaired the Gwinnett Republican Party from 1993 to 1995. He served in the state Senate from 1997 to 2002, representing parts of Gwinnett, Forsyth and Fulton counties. He served on the Judiciary, Appropriations, Natural Resources and Rules committees.
Until being appointed to the bench, Ray practiced with the Lawrenceville firm of Anderson, Tate & Carr, focusing on business, construction, real estate and family law, but he also once won acquittal for a man charged with vehicular homicide, according to an application he submitted to the JNC.
Placed on the bench by Barnes, a Democrat, Ray has presided over Gwinnett’s drug court program. He is secretary-treasurer of the state’s Council of Superior Court Judges.
In 2005, Ray helped Governor Sonny Perdue, with whom he had served in the Legislature, interview finalists for the high court seat awarded to Harold Melton. But Perdue passed Ray over when Ray applied for an opening on the state Supreme Court in 2009. This year, lawyers and judges in Gwinnett lobbied hard to get Ray a place on the state’s appellate courts.
The candidates whom Deal passed over this time were:
• Adams, 35, who defends medical malpractice cases as a partner at Green & Sapp and has served as a member of Deal’s JNC. She studied broadcast journalism at UGA before receiving her law degree there. She is the daughter-in-law of UGA President Michael Adams, who is stepping down next year. She didn’t apply for the Supreme Court opening but threw her hat in the ring for the Court of Appeals.
• Brown, 43, a former federal prosecutor who’s been representing former DeKalb County Schools Superintendent Crawford Lewis in a corruption case. After receiving his law degree from UGA, Brown clerked for Judge J.L. Edmondson of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.
• Self, 43, who was elected to the superior court in Macon in 2006. He is a graduate of the Citadel who did a military tour of duty along the North Korean border in the 1990s. In 2007, he made headlines when he awarded custody of a 7-year-old girl to a woman whose efforts to adopt the girl had been blocked by another judge in part on the grounds that the woman had been living with a same-sex partner. The UGA law graduate is also an NCAA football umpire in the Southern Conference and in 2007 was named to the Daily Report‘s list of lawyers under 40 who are “On the Rise.”
• Shigley, 61, who completed his term as bar president earlier this year. Shigley is of counsel at Chambers, Aholt & Rickard in Atlanta and in recent years has focused his practice on representing plaintiffs in personal injury matters. A graduate of Emory University’s law school, he also has experience as a prosecutor, insurance defense lawyer and mediator. He did not make the short list for the Supreme Court seat filled by Blackwell, but the JNC resurrected his name for the appeals court openings.
• Studdard, 50, who won a 1998 election to become the first judge of the Henry County State Court. He received his law degree from Mercer University before practicing with the firm then known as Smith, Welch, Studdard & Brittain. He maintains an online treatise on developments in Georgia criminal law, plays the tenor saxophone and once appeared on Jeopardy.
The JNC also announced this week its recommendations of three candidates to replace resigned Ocmulgee Superior Court Judge John Lee Parrott: Putnam County State Court Judge Enis Trenton Brown III; Alison Burleson, an assistant district attorney and adjunct law professor at Georgia State University; and Brenda Holbert Trammell, a solo practitioner.
Parrott announced his retirement in May, effectively closing a Judicial Qualifications Commission ethics investigation into allegations that he used his office to advance his private interests.
The governor’s office says it will interview the three candidates but did not disclose a date.
Staff reporter Kathleen Baydala Joyner contributed to this article.