Richard B. Russell Federal Building. Federal Court. U.S. District Court. Downtown Atlanta, Fulton County, Georgia. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

White House names three to be federal judges in Georgia

The White House confirmed that Georgia Court of Appeals Judges Tripp Self and Billy Ray have been nominated to fill two of three open U.S. district court judgeships in the state, which are lifetime appointments. Michael Brown, a former federal prosecutor now in private practice in Atlanta, was also tapped for a judgeship.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution first reported the appointments early Thursday.

Trump is also expected to soon fill three U.S. attorney positions. Among the names that have emerged are former state Rep. B.J. Pak and attorneys Charlie Peeler and Bobby Christine. U.S. attorneys serve four-year terms and, like federal judges, must be confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

The federal courts handle thousands of cases in Georgia each year, from high-profile crimes to complex business matters. They also function as a pipeline to federal appeals courts and eventually the Supreme Court.

The vacant Georgia positions represent a handful of the scores of judicial-branch openings that Trump must fill in the months ahead. Georgia’s two U.S. senators, Johnny Isakson and David Perdue, praised the three judicial appointments in a statement.

“The president has nominated three outstanding Georgians,” Isakson said, “and I look forward to working with them as they go through the confirmation process in the Senate.”

Picks and potential picks

Ray, a former Republican lawmaker and ex-Gwinnett County Superior Court judge, was tapped in 2012 by Gov. Nathan Deal to fill an open seat on the state’s second-highest appellate court. He is set to fill one of two vacant judgeships in the court’s Atlanta-based district.

The second would be filled by Brown, a former federal prosecutor who is now a partner with the Atlanta-based legal giant Alston & Bird. His specialty is defending firms and individuals charged with federal crimes.

The third seat, a Macon-based opening, would go to Self. He’s an ex-Macon Superior Court judge who was appointed by Deal to the state appeals bench in November. The U.S. Army veteran helped start a treatment court for ex-members of the military. Off the bench, he has officiated college football games for about two decades.

Trump is slated to name a trio of nominees for U.S. attorney openings within months.

Pak is considered a contender to head the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Atlanta, a vaunted position once held by former acting U.S. Attorney General Sally Quillian Yates, Georgia Supreme Court Justice David Nahmias and ex-U.S. Rep. Bob Barr.

Pak is a former federal prosecutor who represented a Gwinnett County-based district in the state House for three terms. While an assistant U.S. attorney in Atlanta, he led the prosecution of conspirators who tried to steal Coca-Cola’s trade secrets and aimed to sell them to Pepsi. Now a partner in a well-connected GOP law firm, Pak briefly considered running for Georgia attorney general.

Peeler is often mentioned as a potential appointee as U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Georgia, which spans from Albany northeast to Athens. A former attorney with the King & Spalding mega-firm in Atlanta, Peeler moved to Albany about a decade ago to start a boutique litigation firm.

And Christine is among the contenders to lead the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Southern District, which stretches from Augusta through Savannah. The Columbia County attorney worked for about a decade as an assistant district attorney in the Augusta area before going into private practice and serving as a part-time magistrate court judge.

An invasive process

The selection process for would-be U.S. attorney and district court nominees is unlike that for any other Cabinet or executive branch position.

Instead of the White House finding its own nominees, the vetting process is mostly delegated to local members of Congress from the same party as the president and their surrogates.

Perdue and Isakson each tapped three people to serve on a judicial advisory committee. The group, which was led by former State Bar of Georgia President Jimmy Franklin and included a University of Georgia law professor and several litigators, pored through more than 100 applications and interviewed candidates.

“In the end, one of the most important things to all of us in our group was judicial temperament,” said former U.S. Rep. Buddy Darden, a Democrat who led a similar panel during Barack Obama’s first term as president. “And would that person be someone who could listen to both sides and make a decision. You don’t want somebody argumentative.”

After weeding through the candidates, the committee passed along a short list to Isakson and Perdue. The two senators chose several of their own top picks before sending their recommendations to the White House. The administration then does its own vetting before making a final decision.

The process can drag on for months — even years — and is incredibly invasive, said Ken Canfield, who served on Georgia judicial selection committees during the Clinton and Obama administrations.

“People who go through the process have to be willing to undergo an awful lot,” the Atlanta attorney said. “It’s not just that you’re going to have your life torn apart. It’s that you could end up being some sort of political volleyball and you could be held in limbo for years.”

Senate politics

Judicial nominees must go through another round of vetting by the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee once they’re formally nominated. From there, the political volleyball Canfield described can creep in.

Larger partisan fights over executive branch nominees have become commonplace in recent years. That’s had a side effect of freezing other, less controversial judicial picks. Such stalemates dominated Obama’s eight years in office, and Republicans now say Democrats are grinding Senate business to a halt by slow-walking Trump’s nominees.

There can also be messy maneuvering within state delegations that can complicate judicial appointments.

Dax Lopez, a DeKalb County State Court judge, was poised to become the state’s first Latino federal judge after he was nominated by Obama in July 2015. But Perdue scuttled his nomination in January 2016, saying he was “uncomfortable” with Lopez’s participation in the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials.

A little more than a year earlier, House Democrats from Georgia helped freeze the appointment of Michael Boggs, a state appeals court judge also tapped for an Atlanta-based federal judgeship, in large part for his 2001 vote as a state legislator against removing the 1956-era state flag with its Confederate battle emblem.

In a recent interview, Perdue wouldn’t talk specifics about whom he recommended for the federal bench.

But he said his most important factor was simple: finding “someone that would uphold the Constitution and be objective.”

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