Nahmias to join Georgia Supreme Court

The Georgia Supreme Court will get a new justice with a conservative pedigree.

Gov. Sonny Perdue on Thursday announced his selection of David E. Nahmias to succeed former Justice Leah Ward Sears.

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Perdue said he winnowed Nahmias from a list of nine nominees by applying two key criteria: he wanted someone with “intellectual curiosity” who also “exuded integrity.”

“I think he’s someone we can trust to guard this nation’s bedrock principles,” Perdue said.

Sears stepped down in June, after her name surfaced as a possible nominee by President Barack Obama to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Nahmias’ political credentials probably didn’t hurt his chances with Georgia’s Republican governor. Nahmias has served as the U.S. Attorney in Atlanta since President George W. Bush appointed him in 2004. Before that, he clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

One prominent Republican predicted Nahmias’ conservative bent and prosecutorial background will alter the balance of the state’s high court.

“On criminal issues, our supreme court is known to be a little bit on the liberal side,” said state Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine, a GOP candidate for governor. “He is a conservative; he is a prosecutor. And I think that might balance some of the cases.”

But state Attorney General Thurbert Baker, a Democrat running for governor, said it’s difficult to predict how judges will react until they are asked to rule on specific cases.

“He is a smart guy who understands the law,” Baker said. “I think Dave’s going to make a good addition to the Georgia Supreme Court.”

As U.S. Attorney, Nahmias supervised the corruption prosecution of former Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell. Earlier in his career as a lower-ranking member of the office, he was involved in high-profile local cases, including the investigations of Centennial Olympic Park bomber Eric Rudolph and of the murder of DeKalb County Sheriff-elect Derwin Brown. He also helped coordinate the U.S. Justice Department’s involvement in Bush’s war on terror.

During a brief introduction at the governor’s office, Nahmias said a judge’s role is to uphold the law as established by the democratic process. He said proper function of the supreme court was vital to safety and prosperity. He noted that his parents emigrated from Egypt and Germany after World War II, and said his appointment was “proof once again of the remarkable opportunities that this state and country provide.”

Perdue’s office released a stack of letters endorsing Nahmias. One, by former U.S. Attorney Kent Alexander, now the general counsel for Emory University, says Nahmias was such an astute student of the law that his name became a verb in the officers of Kilpatrick Stockton, where he was a summer associate two decades ago. It was a sign of excellent legal work if someone were to “ ‘Nahmias’ that brief,” wrote Alexander, who later hired Nahmias as an assistant U.S. Attorney in Atlanta.

Nahmias attended Harvard law school with Barack Obama, and Alexander noted that Nahmias recently surprised him by confiding that he had voted for the Democrat once. Nahmias then smiled and said it was when Obama ran to become editor-in-chief on the Harvard Law Review.

Alexander also hired Nahmias’ wife, Catherine M. O’Neil, to the U.S. Attorney’s office. She later caught Perdue’s attention. In 2006, the governor appointed her to Georgia’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, which makes policy for the justice system and administers some grants.

The Nahmiases have two sons. David Nahmias said they “remind me every day of the importance of keeping our state safe and prosperous.”

Nahmias will join a seven-member court headed by Justice Carol Hunstein, who was sworn in as chief justice last month.

It’s unclear when Nahmias will officially join the court. The governor has not yet selected a date to swear him in, but a spokesman said it will occur before the supreme court returns from August recess.

Nahmias will serve out the Sears’ unexpired term and will have to run for election next year.

It’s also unclear whom Obama will select to replace Nahmias as U.S. Attorney.

Oxendine speculated that the president might have gotten around to removing Nahmias.

“He could have easily been on the list to be replaced,” Oxendine said. “The U.S. Attorney serves at the president’s pleasure. It might have happened anyway. This way we at least have him in the judiciary.”

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