Judge William Ray. (John Disney/ ALM)
While any federal judge nominee may expect a rough time in today’s hyperpartisan atmosphere, Georgia Court of Appeals Judge William “Billy” Ray II—tapped last week by President Donald Trump for the U.S. District Court for Georgia’s Northern District—will come to the Senate with a reputation for working across the aisle.
As a member of the then-minority Republican caucus in the Georgia Senate during the 1990s, Ray was known as an affable and effective lawmaker able to work with Democrats to craft and pass legislation. One example: his sponsorship of “Heidi’s Law,” a multipronged bill that tightened penalties for repeat drunken drivers.
In 2002, Democratic Governor Roy Barnes tapped Ray for a vacancy on the Gwinnett County Superior Court, where he served until 2012 when Gov. Nathan Deal named him to the Court of Appeals.
If Ray does make his way to the federal bench, he will likely enjoy being back in the role of trial judge: In 2010, he asked then-Gov. Sonny Perdue to remove his name from consideration for a Court of Appeals appointment, writing to the governor that being a superior court judge was “a great job, one that I look forward to each day. I value the time spent in the courtroom interacting with the public.”
Ray said last week he did not think it would be appropriate to speak to the press concerning his nomination.
The son of a Peach County farmer, Ray was born into a politically active family: One of his uncles was U.S. Rep. Richard Ray, and another was Georgia State Rep. Robert Ray, both Democrats. A cousin, Bob Ray, also served as Georgia’s assistant secretary of state.
His life was touched by early tragedy when his father was murdered by a neighbor when Ray was only 13.
He graduated from the University of Georgia with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in business, then went on to earn his law degree at UGA’s School of Law. After joining the bar, he moved to Gwinnett and joined what was then Andersen, Davidson & Tate, where he remained until his appointment to the bench.
Ray launched the Gwinnett court’s Drug Court program and served as its presiding judge until his appointment to the appeals court.
Gerald Davidson Jr., now of counsel with Lawrenceville’s Mahaffey Pickens Tucker, was a partner at Andersen Tate. He handled many cases with Ray as a colleague and appeared before him frequently after he was named to the bench.
“I would say Billy Ray has got the best of all the traits you want to see in a judge,” said Davidson. “He’s very ethical, a man of unquestionable integrity, smart as hell and also has good common sense—he’s got what I call that farm-boy work ethic.”
As a judge, said Davidson, “he’s got a very even judicial temperament to go with a good sense of humor. On top of that he’s got real-world experience; he’s been in the trenches trying cases. As a judge, I never heard a bad word about him in his 10 years on the bench—and I hear all the comments out here.”
Lawrenceville solo David Lipscomb, a former president of the Gwinnett Bar Association and chairman of the county’s indigent defense committee, called Ray “a top-notch guy.”
“I’ve known him since he was with [Andersen, Davidson & Tate], and I had cases with him then. He was very well respected, and we were all really pleased when he went on the bench.”
Ray, he said, “was always even-handed, very well prepared, great judicial temperament. He didn’t always agree with me—even though I’m always right—but he challenged the prosecutors, challenged the lawyers to do right by their clients. We were all sad to see him go to Court of Appeals.”
“I think he’d make a great district judge; it’s a whole different world, and he’s really well suited for it.”
Similar plaudits came from former Gwinnett County Assistant District Attorney Chuck Ross, who left to join Lawrenceville’s Webb, Tanner & Powell in 2015. Ross handled many cases before Ray at the superior court, and Ross also argued before Ray in the appellate court.
“In my experience, he was always very even-keeled, he never lost his cool. He was stern, but he always tried to put a lot of thought and detail into his rulings. Very congenial to the parties, but a no-nonsense guy.”
“I’ve been on both sides of his rulings, on the superior court and the Court of Appeals. I may not have always liked them, but I never felt that I didn’t get a fair hearing, and [Ray] always had a well-reasoned ruling.”
Some of Ray’s notable decisions on the appeals court include:
• Holding that a Fulton County judge did not err when she allowed jurors to hold the hands of a medical malpractice plaintiff to test claims about their temperature. The ruling noted that the case turned on a battle of experts, with a key point being whether the plaintiff’s hands differed in temperature, a symptom of the pain syndrome he claimed to be experiencing. “Although we find no Georgia case directly on point,” Ray wrote for a panel, “our own precedent indicates that jurors may utilize all their senses, not just hearing and eyesight, in determining factual disputes put to them.”
• Handing a significant setback to lawyers attempting to mount a class action over overdraft fees charged by SunTrust Bank. Ray agreed with a lower court judge that a plaintiff did not have the power to opt out of arbitration on behalf of the class prior to class certification.
• Citing “Harry Potter” in a decision that may have curbed schools’ ability to keep people off their property. The ruling tossed a conviction under a school loitering law that prohibits staying on school property when the principal or someone acting on his behalf tells you to leave.
The ruling was a partial win for a former Heard County commissioner who got into trouble after visits to the county’s high school, where a child of hers attended. One day she was asked to leave the school, and she did—but not before violating the school loitering law, according to prosecutors. She also was accused of trespassing after another visit to the school several months later.
Ray wrote for an appeals panel to uphold the trespass conviction but toss the school loitering charge. Ray wrote that the woman, Karen Isenhower, could not have left the school any sooner when she was asked to leave.
“Isenhower could not simply vanish into thin air, ‘disapparating’ like a character in one of J. K. Rowling’s ‘Harry Potter’ novels,” Ray wrote. “(Isenhower was, after all, at Heard County High School, not Hogwarts.)”