Elizabeth L. “Lisa” Branch – Nominee to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit

Judge Elizabeth L. “Lisa” Branch, President Trump’s second nominee to the Eleventh Circuit, is a state appeals court judge in Georgia with experience in the George W. Bush administration and as a BigLaw commercial litigator. While she has not had the opportunity to opine much on constitutional law, either as an attorney or judge, Branch is a member of the conservative Federalist Society (as is Judge Kevin Newsom, Trump’s first pick for the Eleventh Circuit).  As such, her confirmation will likely ensure a conservative en banc Eleventh Circuit for the foreseeable future.

Background

Elizabeth Lee[1] Branch was born in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1968.[2] She graduated from Davidson College in North Carolina in 1990, and from the Emory University School of Law in 1994. At Emory, Branch served on the Emory Law Journal and was inducted into the Order of the Coif,[3] indicating her position in the top ten percent of her class.[4] After law school, she clerked for two years in Atlanta for Judge J. Owen Forrester of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia.[5] Thereafter, from 1996 to 2004, she worked  at the law firm of Smith, Gambrell & Russell, LLP.[6] This was followed by four years in the Bush Administration, where she served in non-litigating positions,[7] first as the associate general counsel for rules and legislation at the Department of Homeland Security, then as the special assistant and counselor to the administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) at the Office of Management and Budget.[8]

In 2008, Branch returned to Smith, Gambrell & Russell as a partner in the commercial litigation group,[9] also working some on government affairs.[10] In 2012, Branch was appointed by Governor Nathan Deal to the Georgia Court of Appeals.[11]

While at the Georgia Court of Appeals, Branch has served and continues to serve on various internal court committees, and from 2013 to 2017 she also served as a commissioner, appointed by Governor Deal,[12] on the Georgia Child Support Commission.[13]

Among many other affiliations, Branch has been a member of the Federalist Society since 2001.[14] She served on the Executive Board of the Atlanta Lawyers Chapter from approximately 2009 to 2012, and she has served on that chapter’s Board of Advisors from 2012 to the present.[15] From approximately 2001 to 2003, and from 2006 to 2009, she was a member of the Republican National Lawyers Association.[16] She was on the Chairman’s Council of the Fulton County Republican Party from approximately 2011-2012, and she was a member of the National Rifle Association from 2009 to 2014.[17]

Political Activities

Prior to becoming a judge, Branch engaged with several political campaigns as an unpaid volunteer, including participating in the Republican National Committee’s 2006 door-to-door efforts supporting Rick Santorum (unsuccessfully) for a third Senate term.

History of the Seat

Branch has been nominated for a Georgia seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. The vacancy will result from Judge Frank Hull’s impending move to senior status.  As Hull, one of the court’s solidly conservative members, has indicated that she will not move to senior status until the confirmation of her successor, there is not an active vacancy currently on the Eleventh Circuit.

Legal Career

Branch has never practiced before the Supreme Court of the United States,[18] but rather has focused her career on commercial litigation and subsequent service in the federal government in a non-litigating position.[19] Having not served in an attorney general’s or solicitor general’s office, she does not have a record of making controversial arguments or supporting controversial laws.

As part of the U.S. Senate’s Questionnaire for Judicial Nominees, Judge Branch was required to list the ten most significant litigated matters that she personally handled.[20] All ten were civil, four settled, and none concerned constitutional law or civil-rights laws. Only one of the ten listed resulted in a reported decision.[21] As such, it is difficult to determine her legal views on almost any subject from her work as an attorney. Branch’s pre-judicial career as an attorney does not appear, by itself, to shed any light on her views of separation of powers, federalism, privacy, equal protection, due process, religious freedom, or speech, for example. As will be noted, this is true of her judicial career as well.

Jurisprudence

Although Branch has been a state appellate judge for more than five years and has participated in more than 1,500 cases,[22] her decisions say little about her views on constitutional law. This is because the Georgia Court of Appeals “has statewide appellate jurisdiction of all cases except those involving constitutional questions, murder, and habeas corpus cases where original appellate jurisdiction lies with the Supreme Court [of Georgia].”[23] Her court nevertheless has jurisdiction “to address constitutional issues when they are well-settled as a matter of law,” and Judge Branch participated in a number of criminal appeals raising constitutional issues.[24] As a whole, those criminal-law opinions do not reflect an anti-defendant bias. In a number of cases, Branch has granted new trials as a result of ineffective assistance of counsel[25] and reversed denials of motions of suppress (or affirmed the grant of a motion to suppress),[26] which resulted in some convictions being reversed.[27]

But, by and large, her views on major issues of constitutional law are not available to us from her judicial record. That is not to say, of course, that nothing can be gleaned from her prior cases.

In a case seemingly designed to end up in blog posts such as this, Judge Branch held in Gary v. State that a man could not be convicted of criminal invasion of privacy under O.C.G.A. § 16-11-62(2) for recording video up a woman’s skirt with his cell phone while at the grocery store.[28] Perhaps aware that the eyebrow-raising nature of the holding might draw attention–either upon entry of the decision or in future confirmation hearings such as the one at which she will soon appear–Judge Branch took pains to explain what she was and was not saying:

“Each of Gary’s first four enumerations of error turns on whether OCGA § 16–11–62 (2) criminalizes the conduct at issue. With respect to this question, both the State’s argument and the trial court’s holding focused on two propositions: (i) that Gary’s conduct was patently offensive and (ii) that a woman walking and shopping in a public place has a reasonable expectation of privacy in the area of her body concealed by her clothing. We do not disagree with either of these propositions. Nor do we doubt that a woman whose body is surreptitiously photographed beneath her clothing has suffered an invasion of privacy of some kind. The question before this Court, however, is not whether the defendant’s conduct was offensive; it is not whether a person walking in a public place has a reasonable expectation of privacy as to certain areas of her body; and it is not whether the victim’s privacy was violated. Rather, the only issue presented by this appeal is whether the defendant’s conduct constitutes a criminal invasion of privacy, in violation of OCGA § 16–11–62 (2).

The answer to this question necessarily must begin with the language of OCGA § 16–11–62 (2) itself.”[29]

Turning to that language–which makes it illegal for “[a]ny person, through the use of any device, without the consent of all persons observed, to observe, photograph, or record the activities of another which occur in any private place and out of public view”–along with language from surrounding subsections and an earlier definitions section, Branch concluded that the term “private place” did not include a particular region of a person’s body.[30] Five of her colleagues joined her opinion, and together they noted “that it is regrettable that no law currently exists which criminalizes Gary’s reprehensible conduct. . . . The remedy for this problem, however, lies with the General Assembly, not with this Court. Both our constitutional system of government and the law of this State prohibit the judicial branch from amending a statute by interpreting its language so as to change the otherwise plain and unambiguous provisions thereof.”[31] Three judges dissented, finding that the very same “plain and unambiguous language” of the statute yielded the opposite result.[32]

Branch also resorted to plain statutory language in holding that two transgender men had a right to change their names, in In re Feldhaus.[33] (Disclosure: the ACLU, for whom I work, filed an amicus brief in the case.) Although she pointedly did not use personal pronouns to describe the men–instead employing an awkward “the person formerly known as x” formulation–the judge formerly and currently known as Lisa Branch appropriately recognized that all the Georgia name-change statute requires is that a person not change their name in an attempt to defraud others, and that the transgender petitioners’ attempts to change their names to ones consistent with their gender identity in the cases before her were not an attempt to defraud others.[34] In so holding, the judge formerly and currently known as Lisa Branch offered a clear rejection of the approach taken by the many state trial judges–not just in Georgia but across the country–who unlawfully burden transgender petitioners for name changes with additional requirements or criteria that are nowhere enumerated or implied and are not applied to any other class of petitioner.

Branch’s interpretation of purportedly plain language was not always uncontroversial. Beyond the skirt-photographing case described above, in the Cook case Judge Branch–joined by two colleagues–interpreted the federal Medicaid statute to be unambiguous in indicating that the Medicaid applicant’s purchase of an annuity was not subject to an asset-transfer penalty, and thus refused to defer to the relevant federal agency’s contrary interpretation.[35] The Supreme Court of Georgia–while splitting on the degree of agency deference required–unanimously disagreed that the language unambiguously required Branch’s interpretation.[36]

Preceding another prominent reversal on a matter of statutory interpretation, Branch formed part of a three-judge plurality that held that police officers of Agnes Scott College–a private college–were entitled to immunity as “state officer[s] or employee[s]” under the Georgia Tort Claims Act.[37] (One judge concurred in the judgment, while three judges dissented.)[38] The Supreme Court of Georgia unanimously reversed, finding it “clear that the Agnes Scott officers were not acting for any state government entity when they committed the alleged torts.”[39] Looking beyond the specific statutory provision considered by the Court of Appeals plurality, the Supreme Court of Georgia found that “reading the Georgia Tort Claims Act as a whole makes it abundantly clear that the immunity it provides is limited to torts committed by a ‘state officer or employee’ who was acting within the scope of his or her official duties or employment on behalf of a specific ‘state government entity.’”[40]

In each of the cases described above, the distinguishing factor between Branch and her colleagues or the parties was statutory interpretation. What was plain to her was sometimes plainly different to her colleagues. This, of course, is true of all judges, and it will surely continue to mark her future cases, whether she remains in her current position or is confirmed to the Eleventh Circuit.

Writings

Branch does not have many publicly available non-judicial writings. While at OIRA, she co-authored a law-review article entitled “Managing the Regulatory State: The Experience of the Bush Administration.”[41] While an assessment of the Bush Administration’s OMB–including its approach to “smart regulation” and its use of “prompt” letters–is well beyond the scope of this blog post,[42] the piece is notable for its surprisingly statist–relatively speaking–acknowledgment of the importance of regulation:

“Every President from Richard Nixon to George W. Bush has embraced centralized executive oversight of agency regulations. Even critics of OMB acknowledge the legitimacy of a centralized oversight function. Presidents have found regulatory oversight to be necessary and desirable because: (i) the regulatory state is a permanent part of the legal landscape of the United States; (ii) the economic costs of the regulatory state are substantial; (iii) a consensus is needed when executive branch disagreements about regulation arise; and (iv) federal regulations are often necessary to achieve legislative objectives and implement Presidential priorities and policy objectives. Virtually all scholarship on this subject acknowledges the increasing importance of OMB’s role in regulatory policymaking over the past thirty years.”[43]

Although the piece is highly technocratic, promotes science, and gives some amount of attention to so-called unquantified benefits such as a human health and environmental quality, it would be reading too much into this article to suggest that an appreciation of agency expertise will lead Branch to defer to that expertise when the statutory language does not require it. Instead, she will likely seek simply to apply language that she perceives to be unambiguous.

Overall Assessment

Branch’s legal career provides very little insight into how she would operate as an Eleventh Circuit judge faced with a wide range of constitutional questions, as she has not publicly staked out a position on any hot-button legal issue. Her most controversial public acts seem to be joining the NRA and supporting incumbent senator Rick Santorum, holder of a variety of controversial views. Branch’s membership in the Federalist Society is the clearest indication of where her judicial philosophies lie, and her confirmation would likely ensure a conservative en banc Eleventh Circuit for many years to come.


[1] State Bar of Georgia, Hon. Elizabeth Lee Branch, https://www.gabar.org/MemberSearchDetail.cfm?ID=MDc2MDMw (all websites visited Oct. 25, 2017); Questionnaire for Judicial Nominees at 1, https://www.judiciary.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Branch%20SJQ.pdf.

[2] Court of Appeals of the State of Georgia, Elizabeth L. Branch, http://www.gaappeals.us/biography/bio_judges.php?jname=elizabeth%20l.%20branch.

[3] Court of Appeals of the State of Georgia, Elizabeth L. Branch, http://www.gaappeals.us/biography/bio_judges.php?jname=elizabeth%20l.%20branch.

[5] Court of Appeals of the State of Georgia, Elizabeth L. Branch, http://www.gaappeals.us/biography/bio_judges.php?jname=elizabeth%20l.%20branch.

[6] Court of Appeals of the State of Georgia, Elizabeth L. Branch, http://www.gaappeals.us/biography/bio_judges.php?jname=elizabeth%20l.%20branch.

[7] Questionnaire for Judicial Nominees at 48, https://www.judiciary.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Branch%20SJQ.pdf.

[10] Questionnaire for Judicial Nominees at 48, https://www.judiciary.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Branch%20SJQ.pdf.

[11] Court of Appeals of the State of Georgia, Elizabeth L. Branch, http://www.gaappeals.us/biography/bio_judges.php?jname=elizabeth%20l.%20branch.

[12] Court of Appeals of the State of Georgia, Elizabeth L. Branch, http://www.gaappeals.us/biography/bio_judges.php?jname=elizabeth%20l.%20branch.

[13] Questionnaire for Judicial Nominees at 4-5, https://www.judiciary.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Branch%20SJQ.pdf.

[14] Questionnaire for Judicial Nominees at 4, https://www.judiciary.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Branch%20SJQ.pdf.

[15] Questionnaire for Judicial Nominees at 4, https://www.judiciary.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Branch%20SJQ.pdf.

[16] Questionnaire for Judicial Nominees at 5, https://www.judiciary.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Branch%20SJQ.pdf.

[17] Questionnaire for Judicial Nominees at 6, https://www.judiciary.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Branch%20SJQ.pdf.

[18] Questionnaire for Judicial Nominees at 49, https://www.judiciary.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Branch%20SJQ.pdf.

[19] Questionnaire for Judicial Nominees at 48, https://www.judiciary.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Branch%20SJQ.pdf.

[20] Questionnaire for Judicial Nominees at 49, https://www.judiciary.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Branch%20SJQ.pdf.

[21] Questionnaire for Judicial Nominees at 50, https://www.judiciary.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Branch%20SJQ.pdf; Wood v. Archbold Med. Ctr., Inc., 738 F. Supp. 2d 1298 (M.D. Ga. 2010).

[22] Questionnaire for Judicial Nominees at 22, https://www.judiciary.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Branch%20SJQ.pdf.

[23] Court of Appeals of the State of Georgia, http://www.gaappeals.us/.

[24] Questionnaire for Judicial Nominees at 42, https://www.judiciary.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Branch%20SJQ.pdf.

[25] Shaw v. State, 340 Ga. App. 749, 798 S.E.2d 344 (2017); McLaughlin v. State, 338 Ga. App. 1, 789 S.E.2d 247 (2016).

[26] Watts v. State, 334 Ga. App. 770, 780 S.E.2d 431 (2015); Causey v. State, 334 Ga. App. 170, 778 S.E.2d 800 (2015); Bodiford v. State, 328 Ga. App. 258, 761 S.E.2d 818 (2014); Corey v. State, 320 Ga. App. 350, 739 S.E.2d 790 (2013); State v. Carr, 322 Ga. App. 132, 744 S.E.2d 341 (2013); Williams v. State, 318 Ga. App. 715, 734 S.E.2d 535 (2012).

[27] Arp v. State, 327 Ga. App. 340, 759 S.E.2d 57 (2014).

[28] Gary v. State, 338 Ga. App. 403, 403-04, 790 S.E.2d 150 (2016).

[29] Gary v. State, 338 Ga. App. 403, 405, 790 S.E.2d 150 (2016).

[30] Gary v. State, 338 Ga. App. 403, 405-09, 790 S.E.2d 150 (2016).

[31] Gary v. State, 338 Ga. App. 403, 409-10, 790 S.E.2d 150 (2016).

[32] Gary v. State, 338 Ga. App. 403, 410-13, 790 S.E.2d 150 (2016) (Mercier, J., dissenting).

[33] In re Feldhaus, 340 Ga. App. 83, 796 S.E.2d 316 (2017).

[34] In re Feldhaus, 340 Ga. App. 83-85, 796 S.E.2d 316 (2017).

[35] Cook v. Glover, 295 Ga. 495, 495-96, 761 S.E.2d 267 (2014).

[36] Cook v. Glover, 295 Ga. 495, 495-502, 761 S.E.2d 267 (2014); Cook v. Glover, 295 Ga. 495, 502-04, 761 S.E.2d 267 (2014) (Nahmias, J., concurring specially).

[37] See Hartley v. Agnes Scott Coll., 295 Ga. 458, 458-59, 759 S.E.2d 857 (2014).

[38] See Agnes Scott Coll. v. Hartley, 321 Ga. App. 74, 81-86, 741 S.E.2d 199 (2013) (Boggs, J., concurring in the judgment; Miller, J., dissenting).

[39] See Hartley v. Agnes Scott Coll., 295 Ga. 458, 459, 759 S.E.2d 857 (2014).

[40] See Hartley v. Agnes Scott Coll., 295 Ga. 458, 463-64, 759 S.E.2d 857 (2014).

[41] John D. Graham, Paul R. Noe & Elizabeth L. Branch, Managing the Regulatory State: The Experience of the Bush Administration, 33 Fordham Urb. L.J. 953 (2006).

[42] See generally Daniel H. Cole, Law, Politics, and Cost-Benefit Analysis, 64 Ala. L. Rev. 55 (2012).

[43] John D. Graham, Paul R. Noe & Elizabeth L. Branch, Managing the Regulatory State: The Experience of the Bush Administration, 33 Fordham Urb. L.J. 953, 955-56 (2006) (footnotes omitted).