Kemp taps head of new statewide business court

Walt Davis was tapped to be the first judge of Georgia's statewide business court.

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Walt Davis was tapped to be the first judge of Georgia's statewide business court.

‘A litigants’ judge’

The first judge of Georgia’s statewide business court is a veteran litigator who plans to lean on his experience advising dozens of corporate mergers, ownership disputes and other complex legal matters as he sets a course for the new system.

Gov. Brian Kemp tapped Walter Davis on Monday for the role, which will focus on complex business litigation that would otherwise land in county courts. Davis said he wants to model Georgia’s initiative after Delaware and others with similar courts.

“I see this as an opportunity to be a litigants’ judge,” he said in an interview. “I know the demands of big-ticket litigation. The electronic discovery involved. All of this results in stress for the lawyers and a lot of time and money for the clients. I see this as a real opportunity to help.”

Georgia voters approved the business court that Davis will helm in a constitutional amendment in 2018, but legislators passed a measure specifying how the new judicial post would operate this year.

Under the law, the state court will launch in January but won’t start taking cases until August 2020. It would handle some of the state’s more serious business matters but will leave smaller disputes, such as lawsuits over landlord-tenant relations and foreclosures, to local courts.

Davis will be paid about $175,000 a year and must also be confirmed by lawmakers on the House and Senate judiciary committees next year. The chairs of both panels have each submitted letters endorsing his appointment.

A graduate of Mercer University and Vanderbilt’s law school, Davis has worked in the business litigation practice for the Jones Day law firm since 2002 and is a veteran of headline-grabbing disputes, including a recent fight over Newell Rubbermaid’s appraisal.

He’s never served as a judge, but wants his approach to cases to echo U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts.

“My job is to primarily call balls and strikes, to be fair and impartial. The outcome of a particular case can so often be tied to how a case is handled day in and day out,” he said. “We have the opportunity to help the lawyers get past some of those smaller grievances that tend to bog us down.”

The idea for a state business court was long pushed by former Gov. Nathan Deal and his advisory council to quickly resolve complicated business cases through a dedicated court. Supporters also said it could help entice more large corporations to set up shop in Georgia.

Davis said the court would help Georgia “fix a hole in our swing” by giving businesses, particularly those outside of Atlanta, a new outlet to resolve disputes. That was also a focus for Kemp, whose campaign hinged on huge support from outside metro Atlanta.

There was little organized opposition to the new statewide system, but critics of the idea said those cases would better be handled in local courts and worried it gave the governor – who already has tremendous influence on judicial posts – even more sway.

Davis said he had never met Kemp before he interviewed for the post and that he’s focused on ensuring the court has a “real impact” by setting up a system that can be expanded by lawmakers in the future.

“The governor did a lot of homework to try to find someone who could bring instant credibility to the court,” said Davis, “and I hope I can live up to that.”