Judge Elizabeth Branch, Georgia Court of Appeals. (John Disney/ ALM)
Branch, 49, was appointed to the Georgia Court of Appeals in 2012 by Gov. Nathan Deal, leaving a position as a commercial litigation partner at Smith Gambrell & Russell.
An Atlanta native, Branch grew up in Buckhead and Sandy Springs, attending the Westminster Schools, earning her bachelor’s degree at North Carolina’s Davidson College and her law degree at the Emory School of Law. She joined the State Bar of Georgia in 1994.
In response to a request for comment to her chambers, Court of Appeals Chief Judge Steven Dillard responded with a prepared statement saying he was thrilled Trump had nominated Branch.
“Judge Branch is a thoughtful and dedicated jurist who has provided exemplary service to the Court of Appeals of Georgia during the past five years,” said Dillard. “She will bring a wealth of federal and state experience to the Eleventh Circuit, as well as an abiding commitment to the rule of law. The president has chosen wisely.”
In a 2012 interview with the Daily Report, Branch said she began thinking of seeking a judgeship while still in law school, and she landed a clerkship with Judge J. Owen Forrester of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia. She had also worked summers at Smith Gambrell. When her two-year clerkship ended, she hired on with the firm.
Active in Republican political circles and a member of the Federalist Society as a young lawyer, Branch was considering applying for a position with the administration of President George W. Bush when the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, helped make up her mind.
It took a couple of years, but she was finally interviewed by Joe Whitley, the onetime U.S. attorney for Georgia’s Northern District who had been tapped as the first general counsel for the new Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
Whitley appointed Branch associate general counsel at DHS, where she stayed for a year before moving to the Office of Management and Budget, where she spent three years as counsel to the administrator.
In 2008, Branch returned to Atlanta and Smith Gambrell and was re-elected as a partner in the commercial litigation section. In 2011, when Judge J.D. Smith of the Georgia Court of Appeals announced his retirement, she applied for the opening. Deal instead picked Waycross Circuit Superior Court Judge Michael Boggs for the seat, but Branch made the shortlist. In 2012 Deal tapped her to replace retiring Judge Charles Mikell Jr.
Branch has written many noteworthy opinions on the appeals court.
Last year, she penned a decision vacating a trial court’s order that threw out an Open Records Act lawsuit filed by a doctor convicted of murder over a patient’s drug overdose. Dr. Noel Chua had sought a prosecution memo detailing the names and numbers of jurors from an “allegedly sealed” jury pool.
After reviewing the memo in camera, Branch, joined by Judges M. Yvette Miller and Amanda Mercier, ruled that Chua should have been granted a hearing. The memo is at the heart of a renewed effort to win a new trial for Chua, whose conviction was upheld by the Georgia Supreme Court in 2011.
In 2014, Branch authored an opinion favoring the plaintiffs, the parents of a man who was driving drunk when he hit an illegally parked car. A trial judge dismissed the case, ruling they couldn’t possibly win, but Branch’s opinion said a jury should decide who carried more blame for the wreck.
Defense attorneys said the ruling was actually a long-term win, because the opinion said 2005 changes to the state’s tort laws did not take away trial judges’ ability to grant summary judgment to a defendant based on an injured person’s negligence.
Also in 2014, Branch authored an opinion declaring that two would-be developers, including former National Football League player Charles Woodson, had to repay more than $9.4 million for defaulting on a loan for a failed development near the Georgia Dome.
In 2015, Branch wrote an opinion holding that a real estate developer was still liable to an out-of-business bank for more than $21 million in loans, including more than $2 million in attorney fees that had been tossed out by a trial court.
Earlier this year, Branch penned an opinion holding that a trial judge was correct to dismiss a premises liability suit brought by a man stabbed repeatedly during a fight with his ex-girlfriend. The plaintiff was stabbed by the woman’s male companion, and the courts held that the plaintiff’s actions in engaging in the predawn argument left him more at fault for his injuries than the apartment complex’s owner and management company.
Chalmers Pak Burch & Adams partner Douglas Chalmers, who specializes in political law and frequently represents Republican officeholders and seekers, said Branch’s nomination is welcome news.
“She is an outstanding individual and will do an outstanding job,” said Chalmers. “I’ve known her for years, and she will do a superb job interpreting the Constitution. She’s very well thought of in conservative legal circles.”