Meet the New COA Judges

By Michael Cuccaro

Three new judges are scheduled to join the Court of Appeals on January 1, 2016.  The first Court of Appeals convened in 1907, with three elected judges.  The growth of Georgia and the demands placed upon the Court have gradually led to the expansion of the Court.  The last time the Court was expanded was in 1999, when the Court was expanded from ten to twelve judges. [Editor's note: A swearing-in ceremony was slated to be held on December 8th for the new appointees. The swearing-in ceremony has been postponed.]

Earlier this year, the General Assembly approved legislation to expand the Court from twelve to fifteen judges.  The new law provided that the Governor would appoint the new judges until such time as there could be an election.  After a lengthy vetting period Governor Deal selected three highly qualified nominees.
The Court of Appeals was originally established as an intermediate appellate court to provide relief to the Supreme Court by reviewing cases and issues not reserved to the Supreme Court or other courts by the Georgia State Constitution or state law.  All other appealable decisions of the trial courts are within its jurisdiction which is a considerable task, given that Georgia has over one thousand trial courts hearing all manner of controversies.  The Court of Appeals corrects errors of law and helps ensure consistency in how our laws are applied.  The decisions of the Court of Appeals are considered binding precedent on all courts except the Supreme Court.

Known as one of the busiest appellate courts in the country, the work and the decisions of the Georgia Court of Appeals have a great impact on the legal system in Georgia, both in the civil and criminal arena.
Judge Brian M. Rickman
altMountain Judicial Circuit District Attorney Brian M. Rickman brings a very personal, “ground level” perspective to the bench, as he has served both in private practice and as a prosecutor in an area where he was well-known as the district attorney.  Coming from a more rural circuit in northeastern Georgia, he saw the impact of his work on people and in the community firsthand.  He notes that he has sat with defendants’ families and victims’ families awaiting verdicts, and he also frequently encounters parties or their relatives at school functions and trips to the store.  His selection to the Court of Appeals bench will bring about a big change for the district attorney and his family, with his new responsibilities more removed from the local level and direct personal involvement in cases.
Rickman credits investigator Don Page for guiding his perspective as a lawyer.  Previously, Page was the Rabun County sheriff for 24 years, and Rickman describes him as “the last of the ‘Andy Griffith’ sheriffs,” in that he exemplified humility and worked to help people who found themselves in unconventional circumstances.  He was a problem solver.  “This translates well into what we do also . . . looking at the bigger picture.” says Rickman.  In true problem solver fashion, he has helped establish three accountability courts within his circuit and served as chair of Habersham County’s Drug Prevention and Treatment Working Group.  At the state level, he has served on the Board of Public Safety, the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, and as chair of the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council Personnel Committee. 
Looking forward to joining the Court of Appeals, Rickman says this is a very humbling and exciting time for him.  He plans to be a student of the court and to do a lot more listening than talking.  As he gets up to speed as a member of the Court of Appeals, he would also like to champion lawyer wellness.  Lawyers frequently assist people during climatic moments in their lives, and the stress of deadlines adds to the difficulties that lawyers face in maintaining a healthy and well-rounded lifestyle.  Rickman notes that it is hard for judges and lawyers to be at their best when they ignore their own health:  “Your personal and your family’s well-being need to come first.”  As for managing the fast-paced lifestyle of a judge on the Court of Appeals, he said he’s been advised by the current Court of Appeals judges “to take this in, remember it and enjoy this time.  This is a once in a lifetime process that I’m so grateful for.  . . . Someday down the road this is something to talk to the grandkids about.”
Judge Amanda Mercier
altWorking hard has been instilled in Judge Amanda Mercier since she was a child.  Her parents and grandparents taught her the value of honest effort.  As a student she earned high marks, graduating magna cum laude from both the University of Georgia and Syracuse University School of Law.  After law school she was in private practice for nine years working with Speaker of the House David Ralston, and served as a solicitor for the town of Ellijay and as President of the Appalachian Judicial Circuit Bar Association.  The Appalachian Circuit’s Chief Judge, Brenda Weaver, is another strong influence on Judge Mercier, who she learned from both as a practicing attorney and as a superior court judge in her own right. 
For the last five and a half years, Judge Mercier has served as superior court judge in Fannin, Gilmer and Pickens counties. In 2010 she was appointed by then-Governor Sonny Perdue, and won re-election in 2012.  At the state level, she has served on the Georgia Commission on Family Violence and is a member of the 2014 Class of Leadership Georgia.  Her longstanding commitment to serving the public was recently recognized in her nomination to the Court of Appeals of Georgia.  Judge Mercier is currently focused on finishing up her responsibilities as a trial judge and bringing closure to as many cases as possible, even as she prepares for a new life as an appellate court judge.  Follow through is important to Judge Mercier, because as she says “. . . giving somebody your word means everything in both the practice of law and in life.” 
Unique among the new Court of Appeals nominees, Judge Mercier has had a taste of what it is like as an appellate judge.  From time to time a trial judge will be called upon to serve in place of an appellate judge, and in 2013 she served in place of Justice David Nahmias on the Georgia Supreme Court for a specific appeal.  What are her thoughts on joining the Court of Appeals?  “For the last fifteen years I have had the honor and privilege to work with some of the best lawyers and judges in the State of Georgia, and I am greatly indebted to them for all they have taught me.  I hope I can make them proud!”
 Judge Nels Peterson
 In the next issue of the Georiga Courts Journal, we'll talk with Judge Nels Peterson about his appointment to the Court of Appeals.

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