ALBANY — Elizabeth Gobeil is, admittedly, the unlikeliest of appellate court judges.
It was the “push and pull” of one of Gobeil’s mentors, in fact, that piqued her initial interest in litigation and the study of law, and it was an unexpected call from the governor’s office in 2012 when she was “ready for something different” that were instrumental components of Gobeil’s appointment to the 15-judge Georgia Court of Appeals in 2018.
Gobiel was in Albany Wednesday and Thursday with local favorite son Ken Hodges, who was elected to a vacant seat on the Court of Appeals last year and now serves on one of five three-judge panels with Gobiel. She and Hodges spoke at a meeting of the Dougherty Bar Association on Wednesday and mixed and mingled with members of the Dougherty Sertoma Club on Thursday, a first “judge’s road trip” for the Thomaston native.
“Panels on the Court of Appeals sometimes travel outside Atlanta, but Judge Hodges encouraged me to take the opportunity to get out into different communities and talk with the citizens of the state,” Gobeil said of the visit to Albany. “And he was right. This has been really invigorating. I love to learn about new areas of the state.
“It makes sense that we would get out into the various parts of our state because we serve the entire state of Georgia, not just Atlanta. In fact, one of the things that I love best about the judges on the court is the geographic diversity. I love serving with Judge Hodges and Judge (Stephen) Goss from Albany and with judges from other parts of the state.”
Gobeil’s pathway to a judgeship on the state appellate court is one littered with unlikely scenarios, especially given that she admits, “I never really even thought of becoming a judge.”
But after being appointed and serving as Director and Appellate Division Judge for the State Board of Worker’s Compensation for six-plus years, she had friends recommend that she put her name in the hat for one of several seats that came open on the state Court of Appeals.
“I thought there was very little chance that I would receive an appointment, but my friends convinced me that there would probably never be a better chance for one,” Gobeil, who now lives with her family in Savannah, said. “I figured the worst thing that could happen was that I wouldn’t get appointed.”
But when the list of applications was whittled down to a final 40 to 50, Gobeil found she was still in the running. Then she made the short list for an appointment.
“That’s when I had to quit saying that I was a longshot,” Gobeil said. “One night I was alone and I got a call that I saw was from a government number. I told myself, ‘OK, if this is one of the governor’s assistants, I am going to be let down gently. If it was from the governor’ … well, there was a pretty good chance that I was in.
“When I answered the phone and this voice said, ‘Hi, Elizabeth, this is Governor Deal’ … I was in shock. When he told me I had been appointed, I was stunned. I was grinning ear-to-ear, and I just wanted to see my husband, my family, to share the news with them. It was such a humbling experience.”
Gobeil, like fellow Court of Appeals Judge Hodges, found out quickly that the appointment came with a busy schedule.
“The Georgia Court of Appeals is the busiest appellate court in the nation,” Hodges said. Added Gobeil, “From the time I took my place on the bench on June 5, 2018, I believe I heard the numbers that there had been more than 200 filings per judge in 2018. So, yes, even though you have to pay attention to each case, it’s difficult to focus your attention on each case.
“Fortunately, we have wonderful staff attorneys who help with things like applications and filing. Each judge runs his office the way he or she sees fit, but for me I’ve found that it’s best for me to focus on cases in which I’m the lead judge.”
And finding herself in a position in which she must make rulings that can have such a huge impact on the lives of individuals involved, Gobeil admits that her seat on the appellate court can be a double-edged sword of a job.
“Making decisions that we’re faced with can sometimes be difficult, because we often find ourselves bound to make a decision based on law that we may not exactly agree with,” Gobeil said. “I’ve found that even in such cases, I can sleep at night by knowing that I did my best to apply the rule of law. (The ruling) may stick in my craw — it may bug me — but when I know I’ve done my job, I can live with the decision.
“That’s why this job offers a double-edged sword. I love it, but I also have to deal with the burden that comes with making tough decisions.”
Gobeil and Hodges currently serve on a panel that also includes Judge Christian Coomer. Starting next month, the pair will serve on a panel with Chief Judge Stephen Dillard, who makes panel assignments. Both Hodges and Gobeil say they’ve developed a rapport in the short time they’ve served together on the court.
“Elizabeth and I actually have a lot of similarities,” Hodges said. “Both of us went to Emory and graduated from law school at the University of Georgia. And both of us grew up in small towns on the Flint River. We have mutual friends, but we never connected until we were on the court.
“I think the reason we have clicked is that we both approach the law same way. We don’t create laws, we rule on the laws passed by our state Legislature.”
The latter aspect in the approach to their job is one that Gobeil says is shared by most of the 15 members of the state Court of Appeals. And it’s why there is rarely animosity when agreements arise during rulings.
“There is a collegial feeling, a feeling of collaboration among the judges on the court,” she said. “That’s why, I think, we’re able to disagree agreeably. Sometimes we face cases that are not abundantly clear, and it’s difficult to finally reach what we feel are the best results.
“But what I’ve found on this court is that we all want to do what it takes to get it right.”