On Monday morning, while much of the rest of the country was observing Presidents' Day, the justices of the Georgia Supreme Court were hearing oral arguments. The first case on the docket was Owens v. Hill, a death-penalty case of enormous significance not just in Georgia but around the nation. Before the court got to work asking veteran lawyers about the state's new lethal-injection-secrecy law, the justices got to work swearing in a crop of new lawyers to the Georgia bar.
The ceremony, similar to other ones around the nation, was brief and cordial. The chief justice of the Georgia Supreme Court, Hugh P. Thompson, called the baby lawyers before the bench, administered an oath, wished them well, and then turned the proceedings over to one of his colleagues, Justice David E. Nahmias, who offered a few words of encouragement to the latest generation of advocates to be sworn to practice law in the state. Acting the part of the kindly uncle, he told them:
The best lawyers, I think, are the best predictors of the law but nobody gets it perfect. When you get it wrong, you just try to admit it, and do better the next time, and I hope you always remember that when we decide a case that isn't favorable to your clients, we didn't try to do it to hurt you and your clients. We are just trying to get the law right as best we can.
It's unlikely that any of those new lawyers stuck around to watch oral arguments, but if they had they would have received an immediate lesson in what the advice means in the real life of the law (spoiler alert: not much). For it was Nahmias himself, a former federal prosecutor and clerk to Justice Antonin Scalia, who quickly turned from uncle to interrogator, relentlessly questioning a defense attorney and justifying and defending Georgia's remarkable efforts to hide the means it seeks to employ to execute Warren Lee Hill. (For more Atlantic coverage of this case, see here, here, here, here, here, and here).