New Georgia Supreme Court justice earns praise

That biography of Ulysses S. Grant on David Nahmias’ bedside table might have to wait.

Nahmias — appointed U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Georgia in 2004 by President Bush — had been waiting for unemployment as President Barack Obama ponders his replacement.

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Instead, he’s spent the past 72 hours cramming for his next appointment as a justice on the Georgia Supreme Court — a position he is expected to assume next month.

“I would’ve taken a few months off and then decided what I was going to do next,” he laughs, imagining that jobless day. “I’ve got quite a stack of books.”

In addition to getting up to speed on the schedule of arguments of more than 30 cases awaiting the court in September, Nahmias (pronounced “NAH-me-us”) has been learning his way around the office. “There are a lot of procedural issues and ... administrative things,” says Nahmias, who, as U.S. attorney, oversaw the successful prosecution of former Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell. “You do a lot of work in this job.”

Nahmias, 44, a conservative, was appointed last week by Gov. Sonny Perdue to replace the liberal justice Leah Ward Sears, who retired from the court to pursue private legal practice earlier this year. In Georgia, Supreme Court justices are sworn in without a confirmation process, unlike the U.S. Supreme Court.

Nahmias previously was an assistant U.S. attorney and, in Washington, D.C., a counsel to the assistant attorney general in the Criminal Division of the Department of Justice.

Many lawyers, including those who’ve argued against Nahmias, have praised the appointment, citing his steel-trap intellect and keen legal mind.

“David is a great choice,” says attorney Steve Sadow, who defended rapper T.I. against the federal weapons charges brought by Nahmias’ office in 2007. “He is a scholar of the law and a man of integrity.” It was Nahmias who brokered the deal to have T.I. speak to at-risk kids for his community service.

Paul Kish— who has argued many cases against Nahmias over the years, starting when Kish was a young public defender and Nahmias an assistant U.S. Attorney more than a decade ago — says that Nahmias lives up to his reputation.

“Dave is a very good lawyer and a very good prosecutor,” says Kish, who was the public defender assigned to defend Olympic Park bomber Eric Robert Rudolph. He praises Nahmias for avoiding a long and costly trial in that case by plea bargaining.

“Dave has the ability to look at the larger interests of the public when deciding a single case,” Kish adds. “It was in the public’s interest to help the victims and family members in the case seek some closure.”

To those critics who worry that his appointment will tip the even balance of the court, Nahmias has a quick retort. “It’s dangerous to make predictions about thing like that unless you really know the people involved.”

“I hope I’ll be able to do the work of the court as well as [Justice Sears] did,” he adds.

A Decatur native, Nahmias is the son of André and Brigitte Nahmias, both physicians who moved to Atlanta in 1964 to work at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. André Nahmias, who was born in Egypt, went on to a professorship and distinguished career in AIDS research at the Emory University School of Medicine. Though now retired, “he still does a lot of work on his own and audits undergraduate classes,” says his son.

The young Nahmias attended Briarcliff High School (now defunct) in DeKalb County and was such a remarkable student that urban legend soon surrounded him — such as the rumor that he scored a perfect 1600 on his SAT. (Not true, says Nahmias. “I got a 1540.”)

However, among his many awards, he was a finalist in the Westinghouse Science Search for a virological research project he completed in his father’s lab. To no one’s surprise, he was named the STAR student for the state of Georgia.

“Dave was pretty poised for greatness,” recalls Jon Goff of Duluth, who was class president in 1982, the year Nahmias graduated. “But he also had a really good academic attitude, not just aptitude. He was also a nice, personable guy. He had friends. He played sports.”

Nahmias was also a great fan of that classic late ’70s/early ’80s pastime of geeky young men everywhere — Dungeons and Dragons. (When asked about it, Nahmias’ replied, “Yeah, but I did also play on the varsity soccer team.”)

Nahmias earned a full academic scholar to Duke University. “I was kind of a science person until I got to college,” he recalls. “Then I realized figuring out why people do things is more interesting than figuring out why viruses do things.” He graduated second in his class.

He then attended Harvard Law School, was an editor of the Harvard Law Review (along with Obama) and graduated magna cum laude.

During his time in law school, Nahmias began to chart a shift in his political philosophy.

Although he had been brought up in a liberal-leaning household, he says he was “led in large part by my legal studies and judicial philosophy.”

“I didn’t become a Republican until the early ’90s,” he says of the shift. “By then, I was a moderate conservative, politically. Judicially, I’ve been a conservative for a long time.”

Staff writer Bill Rankin contributed to this report.