The next participant in our “Questions for the Bench” series is Judge Elizabeth Gobeil of the Georgia Court of Appeals.
Number of years on the bench: Over six years. From 2012 until the middle of last year, I was director and appellate division judge for the State Board of Workers’ Compensation. In June of 2018, Gov. Nathan Deal appointed me to the Court of Appeals (to the seat vacated by Judge Elizabeth “Lisa” Branch when the president appointed her to the Eleventh Circuit Federal Court of Appeals).
What prompted you to seek a job on the bench?
I had not always sought to be a judge. But, after many years of practicing in the private sector, I jumped at the chance to serve as an appellate judge at the State Board of Workers’ Compensation. My six years at the board strengthened my long-held respect for the rule of law and gave me a greater appreciation of the importance of having judges committed to that goal. Ultimately, that experience opened my eyes and a door to my current role. With the encouragement of some thoughtful friends, I decided to apply for a seat on the Court of Appeals in 2018 when several openings were expected. I was incredibly honored and humbled when Gov. Deal selected me for one of those positions.
What do you like most about being a judge?
Knowing that my work matters. On the flip side, the most difficult part of the job is knowing that people’s lives, finances, relationships and freedoms are at stake. Striving to apply the rule of law faithfully, impartially, and correctly is a tremendous and humbling responsibility.
What keeps you up at night as a judge?
The fear of misapplying the law, especially when someone’s liberty is at stake. As a judge, I accept that it is not my role to decide what the law should be (versus what it is). But, as a human, there invariably are cases that will strike you as unfair or unjust, even though the result derives from the faithful and impartial application of the law. I channel those moments to remind myself of how high the stakes are (to the parties and often to future litigants and stakeholders) and to work harder to ensure the rule of law is applied correctly.
What are your pet peeves in briefs and arguments?
While rarely occurring in my experience, a lack of civility or professionalism is truly disappointing. Somewhat more common is when attorneys, in their zeal to win, are not candid about their cases’ weaknesses. While I do not expect attorneys to concede meritorious arguments, I believe they lose a valuable opportunity to frame the issue when they neglect or gloss over a weakness.
What characteristic(s) do successful advocates before you share?
They are well-prepared, well-organized, candid and civil. Further, they are able to distill the case to its core issues and know when to give. A strategic approach is more effective than an indiscriminate, gunshot approach.
When making a decision, do you tend to look for proper legal reasoning to support a particular answer, or do you follow the legal reasoning to a particular conclusion?
As judges, our duty is to apply the rule of law faithfully and impartially. My goal always is to go where the rule of law leads, even when I may not like the result. To paraphrase Justice Antonin Scalia, if you always like your decisions, then you are not doing your job right. In contrast, I believe a results-driven approach undermines the judicial oath of impartiality, fosters inconsistencies in the law, threatens to usurp the role of the legislative branch and promotes the politicization of the judiciary.
If you have an inkling about how you’ll rule on a question before hearing oral argument, how often does oral advocacy change your mind?
Though I have only been at the Court of Appeals for about eight months, I heard hundreds of oral arguments each year in my six years as an appellate judge at the State Board of Workers’ Compensation. In my experience, when I have a strong leaning going into oral arguments, rarely has oral advocacy standing alone flipped me completely to the opposite position. However, oral arguments often persuade me that an issue is a closer call than my initial impression. They also may prompt me to move from my initial assessment, which impacts the analysis and possibly the holdings, regardless of whether it changes the end result. Finally, they can be great tools to pressure-test and clarify the issues, thereby making the final review and decision process more efficient.
What U.S. Supreme Court justice who served in the past 20 years would you like to emulate and why?
Judges are unique individuals, with different backgrounds, strengths, and styles. Given that fact, I do not intend to force myself into another’s mold. But as I carry out my duties, I find inspiration in other judges’ strengths. To name a few, I respect Justice O’Connor for leading by example to encourage women to enter the bar and bench. And, I admire Georgia’s own, Justice Thomas, for his humility, integrity, and commitment to the rule of law. I respect Justice Scalia’s clarity of expression and his contributions to public discourse on judicial philosophy. And, as a big fan of civility and collegiality on and off the bench, I appreciate the many justices who have forged friendships despite holding deeply held, divergent views, such as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the late Justice Scalia with their now-famous friendship.
What is your approach to stare decisis? Under what circumstances would you vote to overturn a precedent?
As an intermediate appellate court judge, I respect and am bound to follow higher law precedent, even if I might disagree with the reasoning behind such precedent. With regard to Georgia Court of Appeals decisions, we are able to overturn our own precedent, but I would not do so lightly. I recognize the value of stability and predictability in the law. However, I believe we can and should overturn our own precedent when needed, for instance, to resolve conflicting lines of cases from our court or to bring our precedent in line with that of the higher courts and the Constitution.
How would you describe the role of the judicial branch in the separation of powers?
The separation of powers is a critical component of the system the Founders established to place checks and balances on government power. As judges, our role is confined. The judicial branch is responsible for applying the rule of law, not creating it.
What are your views regarding the use of nonprecedential opinions, such as unpublished opinions and judgment-only concurrences, in the Court of Appeals?
Nonprecedential opinions offer a way to resolve cases—sometimes more efficiently—without cluttering the law with cases that add nothing substantive to the body of law. In general, I prefer to avoid judgment-only concurrences that do not explain the reason for specially concurring. That said, if I disagree with the lead judge’s opinion in a nonsubstantive way (such as tone) or otherwise believe a separate opinion would not add value, I would consider using this option.