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New Justice already making mark on supreme court

ATLANTA --- Just 8 minutes and 16 seconds into hearing his first case as a judge, Supreme Court Justice David Nahmias might have set a record as the quickest rookie to speak up during oral arguments.

Just across the street in the Capitol, freshmen legislators are routinely instructed to keep their mouths shut, listen and learn -- for at least a year -- before addressing their fellow lawmakers. Perhaps since Nahmias doesn't have the elective background of the other justices who have been either successful candidates or political aides, he never got those instructions.

He started by asking probing questions that zeroed in on a key fact that an Augusta defense attorney and the other justices had been kicking around. Observers in the court -- and some of his new colleagues --quickly concluded he could be a powerful intellectual force who could swing decisions with his insight.

Granted, his first case, and even the one following it, did not revolve around high-profile, constitutional questions but rather appeals of violent murders by men with histories of violence. Still, he took them seriously.

Indeed, he impressed colleagues with the amount of research he did before the oral arguments, even looking up details online in order to prepare to question the attorneys representing the prosecutors and the convicted. Some of that energy and online savvy could be because at 45, he's younger than all his colleagues (except for Harold Melton), some of whom were practicing law when he was born.

Like Nahmias, Melton was also appointed by Gov. Sonny Perdue to fill a vacancy left by a retiring chief justice. Before Melton's appointment, the same seven justices had served together for the longest stretch, eight years, of any panel on the state's high court.

Not only are they new faces, but also many consider Melton and Nahmias to be far more conservative than Norman Fletcher and Leah Sears, whom they replaced.

That means most observers expect the court to have a conservative orientation as Perdue's two appointees join Justices George Carley and Harris Hines on the right side of the bench where Justice Hugh Thompson is often found. Only Chief Justice Carol Hunstein and former Chief Robert Benham are considered reliable moderates -- although they would be conservatives on some other state high courts.

Nahmias, who was born in Atlanta on Sept. 11, comes not from the ranks of politics or the lower-court bench. Instead, he made his reputation prosecuting terrorists, spies and corrupt politicians. Most recently, he served as a Bush appointee as U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Georgia, and he's lost none of his talent for quick thinking gained as a courtroom brawler.

Indeed, it is that perspective as much as his judicial philosophy that is likely to give him a special place on the court. He's the only former prosecutor on the court and the only justice to have made his living arguing before a judge in the last three decades.

Yet, he's also got the judicial pedigree of having been an editor of the Harvard Law Review with Barack Obama and having clerked for distinguished jurists, including U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. Plus, he served in the U.S. Justice Department in Washington. His qualifications are more than just image, as was clear Tuesday.

When the state Supreme Court holds oral arguments, the justices' questions to the attorneys not only elicit information but also reveal the judges' thinking about the case. The other six often consider a point of law for the first time in a case when they hear a colleague raise it in a query.

It will be several months before Nahmias will vote in secret conference with the rest of the court to decide a case, and possibly longer before his turn to author an opinion. In the meantime, his bold questioning during oral arguments will be the most visible evidence of a new era on the law of the land in Georgia.

(Walter Jones is the Atlanta bureau chief for Morris News Service. He can be reached at or (404) 589-8424.)

Web posted on Thursday, September 17, 2009

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