Judge Walt Davis Reflects on State-wide Business Court’s First Year in Business

Georgia’s State-wide Business Court started to accept filings a little over a year ago—on August 1, 2020.  To mark the Court’s first anniversary, Judge Davis spoke with JC/AOC staffer, Noelle Lagueux-Alvarez, to reflect on the Court’s progress and plans for the future.

Edited and condensed for clarity.

Noelle Lagueux-Alvarez: First off, congratulations on the Business Court’s first year in business, Judge Davis.

Judge Davis: Thank you, Noelle, it’s a great milestone.

NL-A:  How would you sum up the State-wide Business Court’s first year?

Judge Davis:  I couldn’t be prouder of what we’ve accomplished over the last year.  I’ve been at this for over two years now, but most of our core team came onboard a year ago. There was a very distinct change at this time last year when the Court went from “I and me” to “we and us.”

We turned on our filing system for the first time on Saturday, August 1, 2020 and, within an hour, we had our first filing. I had spent so much time working on building out the physical infrastructure of the Court, establishing the rules, hiring staff, and managing budgets, but I knew very little about setting up a clerk’s office. That’s where our Clerk, Angie Davis, was invaluable and I couldn’t be more grateful for her contributions. Our Senior Deputy Clerk, Tynesha Manuel, formerly with the Judicial Council/AOC, also started at this time last year and really put her stamp on our operations, doing yeoman’s work on policies and procedures.  It was during that same time that I was able to convince Lynette Jimenez to come over from the Metro Atlanta Business Court. Lynette has been an absolute delight to work with. She could work at any firm in the city, but chooses to work here, and she’s one of the most talented writers I’ve ever known.

The biggest change over the last twelve months is that last year, I had my hands in literally everything, but this year—as it should be—there are things that happen that I don’t even know about because people have picked up the baton, run with it, and are doing such an effective job. 

NL-A:  The State-wide Business Court started taking filings and hearing cases during the Summer of 2020 when we were well into the COVID-19 pandemic. You hadn’t even experienced a “normal” before you were taking on a “new normal.”  What was it like for you and your staff to start court operations in the midst of the pandemic?

Judge Davis:  In an odd way, I think it actually helped. Our strategic plan calls for slowly and incrementally introducing videoconferencing into our normal routine.  Then the Pandemic hit, and all courts pivoted to videoconferencing. What we thought would be cutting edge—using Zoom— has become normal.  We anticipated heavy lifting to persuade attorneys and parties to use Zoom, but it’s been embraced quickly and whole-heartedly, and I don’t think we would have seen that but for the pandemic. There is enough novelty to the State-wide Business Court already— it’s a trial-level court with statewide jurisdiction, it has its own distinct rules, and it has a judge who, up until two years ago, wasn’t known much outside of metro Atlanta.  It’s a new class of court that’s operating in a unique way, but adding the videoconferencing component hasn’t been difficult because, in light of the pandemic, it has become second nature for a lot of lawyers.  The promise of this Court is to deliver justice with expertise and efficiency.  Oddly enough, the pandemic helped with the efficiency piece.

NL-A: What do you consider the highlights of the Court’s first year?

Judge Davis:  There have been personal highlights and professional highlights. On the personal side, having litigated for so many years, I had some sense of what I was getting myself into, but there is no way to overstate the feeling you get when you first put on the robe—the weight of responsibility.  I serve as the arbiter of the disputes before me, and I take that responsibility very seriously.  In our justice system, grounded in the rule of law, myself and my fellow judges are responsible for ensuring that our courts work fairly and serve justice. The weight of that responsibility is not lost on me. 

On the professional side, I think we have done incredible substantive work at an incredible clip.  We’ve issued countless rulings. I don’t know whether they were all on issues of first impression, but they were certainly all on issues about which not much had been written under Georgia law.  The legal issues we’ve seen run the gamut from construing the Restrictive Covenant Act and ruling on fiduciary duties to partnership and LLC disputes.

There is a great vision for what this court could be. We’re off to a great start in meeting that vision and we’ve held ourselves to account.  For instance, we’ve adopted the Delaware Court of Chancery’s practice of assuring litigants that they will get a written opinion that is thoughtful and appealable within 90 days of oral argument or the close of briefing. This Court, which is charged with handling business disputes with expertise and efficiency, can add to the many reasons for which Georgia is a great state for doing business.

We’ve seen cases from all over the state—Burke, Clarke, Lowndes, and Muscogee Counties, just to name a few.  I’ve given over 100 speeches about the Court over the last couple of years all around the state.  We are fulfilling on our mission to take the Court from concept to reality.  Over the last year, this Court has served neurosurgeons in Atlanta and plumbers in Jones County.  We’ve had cases involving nuclear reactors over in Augusta, drone technology in Haralson County, and shrimp boats on the coast.  I think this sort of universal appeal is why the Business Court was created in the first place.  The thing I think we all mis-judged, and about which I think I am most proud, is that of our fifty-one cases to date, only two have been filed by “big business.”  This means that small businesses from virtually every corner of the state have accepted the Court as a legitimate, feasible forum in which to resolve their dispute.  The “big business” piece of the puzzle will come.  Convincing small business was assumed to be the heaviest lift going in, but the numbers bear out otherwise and show that we have had some degree of success in making the case for why the Business Court is a forum in which small businesses should be interested.

NL-A: Is there anything you hope to change about the Court’s operations going forward?

Judge Davis:  The Court has a three-part strategic plan: build it, market it, grow it.  We’ve built it, we’ve marketed it, and now we turn to the growth prong.  As I said when Governor Kemp first announced my appointment two years ago, the Georgia State-wide Business Court will be a success when I’m not the only judge and when the Court has a presence in other areas of the State, outside Atlanta, be it Columbus or Macon, Augusta or Savannah, Albany or Athens, Blue Ridge or Valdosta (I am sure I unintentionally left out some location that will get me in hot water).  Though, if it’s Athens, I think I may relocate and take that spot.  When the Court has multiple locations like the business courts in North Carolina and Delaware, that’s when we can sit back and say that this was a legislative, political, business, and judicial success across the board.

Currently, we have 51 cases filed, but I’d like to see the Court carry about 100.  Unfortunately, given the current consent provision that requires all parties to agree to be subject to this Court’s jurisdiction, I don’t think we will come anywhere near that number.  Although the demand is there, the all-party consent provision is a real impediment.  Not a day goes by without me hearing about how some lawyer, judge, or business person somewhere wanted to use the Court (or transfer a case to me), but couldn’t.  That said, it’s a veiled compliment – it means lawyers and business owners, and even other judges, see its value now, certainly much more than they did a year ago.  But a legislative change to that consent provision is required for this Court to grow.  So, I will spend time everyday trying to find a compromise that will work for everyone.  Bottom line, for the long-term success of this Court, and to truly be on par with other states we view as economic competitors, I think there needs to be a legislative change to the all-party consent requirement and there’s absolutely potential for compromise on that issue.

NL-A: Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

Judge Davis:  Yes, as I said on the most recent Judicial Council call, anniversaries naturally present opportunities for reflection.  The first anniversary of the Court is no different.  I have immense gratitude for the many who have contributed to the success of this Court during its first year. The General Assembly and Governor Kemp’s office have been incredibly supportive and given us the resources needed to succeed.  One of the biggest things they did at the outset was to support putting the Court in the Nathan Deal Judicial Center, with the Georgia Supreme Court and the Georgia Court of Appeals.  And thank heavens they did.  Because I have no idea where we would be right now without the assistance of the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals, and their respective teams.  But the same could be said of so many of the judges and others Judicial Council members I have encountered over the last two years – be it Judges Padgett and Kell inviting me onto their podcast to talk about the Court, to Judge Emerson schooling me on case management, to Judge Doyle and Judge Richardson selflessly agreeing to sit as a Business Court judge when I had to recuse, to Judge Art Smith rallying a few of his colleagues to take me to lunch on the Columbus waterfront.  There are dozens of examples, and I’m going to offend someone by omitting them, so I apologize in advance.  But the point is that it really has taken a village to make this a success.   

I am also grateful to you and your colleagues at the AOC.  You all are the unsung heroes of this story, as far as I am concerned.  Not many people know that you perform the bulk of the “back office” services for our Court (e.g., payroll, HR, communications, legal, just to name a few), which candidly allows us to focus solely on the customer-facing aspects of our job.  It is not an exaggeration or platitude to say that we owe our success to these collaborations.

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