David Werner, Office of Gov. Nathan Deal. (John Disney/ ALM)
Covering corporate law departments and in-house attorneys for the Daily Report and other ALM publications, reporter Kristen Rasmussen profiles David Werner, executive counsel to Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal.
There are more than 100,000 state employees in the executive branch and almost 40 budgetary departments. The state of Georgia has an annual budget of close to $50 billion, including federal dollars.
The governor’s legal department is composed of Werner, a deputy counsel, a legal assistant, an executive assistant and a nonlawyer who handles extraditions, Werner says. The team, he adds, works together on a variety of duties, including drafting the governor’s annual legislative package and tweaking it as it moves through the General Assembly and working with state agencies to try to implement various proposals, such as comprehensive criminal justice reform, either administratively or through the legislative process. The team also vets high-profile legislation or proposed laws with the governor that are likely to end up on his desk.
“The luxury of being in the governor’s office is that we don’t have to have a position on legislation by the 40th day. We have 40 days to make a decision on the position of the bill,” Werner says, referring to both the maximum number of legislative days in the General Assembly’s regular session, as well as the number of post-session days the governor has to take action on a particular bill before it automatically becomes law. “We do our best to not surprise anyone who sponsored legislation, but we want to make sure it’s the best piece of legislation that passes the finish line.”
Although the state of Georgia regularly sends work to outside counsel, Werner says he generally is not the person farming it out. As the lawyer for the state, the attorney general handles litigation against Georgia and its governor, including the management of outside counsel. As part of a collaborative effort between the offices, though, Werner says he participates in discussions related to pending litigation and advises the governor on the legal issues involved.
As for where the work goes, Werner says the offices “tend to keep it local,” although in certain circumstances, such as a particularly high-stakes case, they may expand their portfolio of outside lawyers. In the epic litigation conflict that has become known as the “water wars,” for example, the state turned to Washington, D.C.-based Kirkland & Ellis.
That legal battle involves the use of water from three rivers that come together in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin, which encompasses parts of Georgia, Alabama and Florida. Florida has argued for decades that Georgia has taken too much water from the system—threatening the sufficient streamflow that Florida needs to support its riverine and estuarine ecosystems, as well as people like oystermen who rely on it for their livelihoods. Georgia has countered that it needs the water to meet the demands of the Atlanta metropolitan region and farmers to the south.
Most recently, on Feb. 14, a U.S. Supreme Court-appointed special master recommended that Florida be denied relief in its lawsuit aimed at capping Georgia’s water-consumption limits.
In addition to his legislative responsibilities, Werner says he assists with appointments to the more than 250 boards and commissions that the governor oversees, drafts executive orders and deals with the many legal issues that arise when a state of emergency is declared. He also spends “a decent portion of the day” with the governor in meetings with agency heads, outside groups and other stakeholders on policy issues.
Among his favorite and most-rewarding duties, Werner says, is overseeing the judicial appointment process.
“This is a big part of the impression the governor will leave on the state,” he says. “It lasts well beyond him being in the office.”
But the legislative duties, Werner says, are never far from his mind on any given day.
“The session is 40 days, but we think about it year-round,” he says. “Even now we’ll be thinking about what we want to bring in 2018 and whether we want to do a longer-plan study, form a committee or dig deep on an issue.”
Route to the Top
After graduating from Emory University School of Law in 2009, Werner, 33, got involved with campaign work and ultimately ended up on Deal’s 2010 campaign. That position led to various roles in his administration, from public safety policy adviser to deputy executive counsel, deputy chief of staff for legislative and external affairs and chief operating officer overseeing all of the executive agencies.
He became Deal’s top lawyer in January.
Werner and his wife, Suzanne, an attorney at The Coca-Cola Co.’s in-house litigation department, have a 14-month-old daughter, Reese. Werner says he loves watching and playing golf and competes in amateur events. He also enjoys live music and reading.
“Hillbilly Elegy” by J.D. Vance, a former Marine and Yale Law School graduate’s memoir of growing up in a poor Rust Belt town and analysis of the struggles of America’s white working class.
CORRECTION: This story has been corrected. The initial version stated that the governor’s office has an annual budget close to $50 billion, including federal dollars.
Contact Kristen Rasmussen at firstname.lastname@example.org.