2013 On The Rise

Keith Blackwell KEITH
, 38

Justice, Supreme Court of Georgia
• University of Georgia, political science
• University of Georgia School of Law, 1999

Justice Keith Blackwell epitomizes the new wave of appellate judges in the state. They're young, they're smart and they're conservative. Many are coming to the appellate bench straight out of practicing law, bypassing the trial court rung. And their ranks are growing quickly.

Appointed to the state Court of Appeals by Governor Sonny Perdue at the age of 35, Blackwell didn't have much experience practicing before the court on which he was to sit. But the Cherokee County native, who has said he was the first lawyer in his family, did have strong academic credentials, having finished first in his class in college and law school at the University of Georgia and having clerked for a federal judge. And he had a sterling political résumé, too: He had been president of the Atlanta lawyers' chapter of the Federalist Society and volunteered for the state Republican Party and Nathan Deal's gubernatorial campaign.

Deal has an acknowledged penchant for appointing trial judges to appellate seats, but when he had a chance to make his first pick for the state Supreme Court, he passed over a host of trial judges long touted as potential justices and promoted Blackwell.

Robert Highsmith, a Republican lawyer who has vetted judicial candidates for Perdue and Deal, says he has known Blackwell since Blackwell was a law student, noting their Federalist Society connections. "His rise to prominence in the state's judiciary looks meteoric," says Highsmith, "but if you've been following Keith as long as I have, it's just unsurprising."

In less than a decade, the state high court has gone from one in which all of the justices were appointed by Democratic governors to one in which three of the seven are young men with Republican ties. It's at a tipping point; one more appointment by a Republican governor could give conservatives a clear majority.

The Court of Appeals has undergone even more dramatic change, with the majority of the court having joined it in the last five years. Now only three of the 12 were appointed by a Democratic governor, while five were appointed by Republicans and the rest were elected to open seats.

To be sure, the courts are shifting rightward. But the change may be as much generational as it is ideological. Some of the new judges are engaging with the bar via social media. Whether speaking at lawyer luncheons or penning court decisions, they appear more willing to question publicly their courts' precedents and practices.

Long-standing institutions are "reinvigorated" from time to time with the introduction of new personnel, says Blackwell. "People become kind of set in their ways of doing things," he says.

Blackwell wasn't shy in his opinions as a Court of Appeals judge, employing a distinctive writing style in which a new judge was willing to question decades of precedent on his court. Now at the Supreme Court he's found some kinship in that regard with a Perdue appointee, Justice David Nahmias.

"Both David and Keith are fully prepared to re-examine the law," says Highsmith. "And I think that's extremely healthy. I think it reinjects rigor and vigor to the intellectual life of the court."

Blackwell likely has many years to make his mark. And he's just getting started.

—Alyson M. Palmer