We all make small decisions every day, usually without thinking, as we navigate traffic or settle on a place for lunch. Important decisions are given more consideration and carefully weighed. Not infrequently, we put off making a decision – sometimes indefinitely. Fear of making a wrong decision or fear of failure can be paralyzing for many of us. For Judge Sara Doyle, the key to making good decisions lies in her ability to balance intuition and rationality - the head and heart. While her knowledge of the law goes without saying, it is her ability to take this whole person approach to decision making that has given the citizens of Georgia the confidence to trust her with a seat on the Georgia Court of Appeals. Doyle serves today as one of the body’s Presiding Judges.
Sara Doyle was born in Dallas, Texas and moved to Florida for 7th grade. Living in both Tampa and Orlando, she attended middle and high schools there. A gymnast and cheerleader for many of these years, she also focused extensively on her school work. “School was not a question,” she says. “My parents were both very academic and their expectations were high.” They also made her take piano. Still, she made the time to be so successful at cheerleading that her squad was ranked 5th in the country for JV and her Varsity squad competed nationally.
Doyle went to the University of Florida where she majored in management and marketing, earning a BS in Business Administration. She worked for a year running a Limited Express in Jacksonville, Florida before entering law school at Mercer in Macon, Georgia. “I loved law school right away,” she says, “probably because I love to read so much.” Taking all of the tax related classes that she could, Doyle was named the Tax Scholar for Mercer Law school in her third year. While in law school, Doyle interned one summer at the Atlanta firm of Wilson Strickland & Benson and then went to work there full time after graduation. “The firm did a wide variety of litigation and corporate work and I was exposed to a host of different issues and legal problems,” she says.
Getting to work on a wide variety of issues was good for Doyle and was especially helpful in her later career as a jurist. The firm’s clients included Life University and a number of other colleges and universities. Practice areas covered were employment, corporate contract and many other things. She loved working at the firm.
In 2000, a large group from the firm merged into Holland & Knight in Atlanta and took Doyle with them. “I was from Florida so I really liked the idea of being at Holland and Knight,” she says. Despite growing pains, all went smoothly and definitely went well for Doyle – she became a partner in 2003 and an equity partner in 2008.
Despite her great success, something made Doyle think about making a change. The idea of becoming a judge appealed to her because in addition to wanting to do work that was less confrontational, she knew that one of her strengths was being able to see both sides of every argument. Consulting with various persons knowledgeable about judgeships - including her fellow partner and office mate at Holland & Knight, Kasim Reed, former Mayor of Atlanta – it was decided that her best route to a judge’s post was via appointment by the Governor. After all, her distinguished litigation career merited such attention and she was exactly the sort of person that the bar always hoped would be available when a judge’s post fell vacant. Good advice in hand, Doyle decided to wait for consideration for an appointment.
Then, in early 2008, Georgia Court of Appeals Presiding Judge John Ruffin, Jr. decided to step down from the court after 12 years. After looking at the backgrounds of the sitting judges of the Court of Appeals, Doyle decided that she would make a good addition to the court and decided to run. She researched the court thoroughly and met with several serving Court of Appeals judges. Doyle believed that being able to think and reflect before making a decision, as appellate judges are allowed to do, rather than have to make decisions almost instantly, as trial judges have to do, played right into her skill set.
Having become convinced that she could do the job, Doyle then had to get approval from Holland & Knight to run for the position. She could have resigned from the firm, of course, but she wanted to stay in the event that she lost. The firm gave its approval. Her next move was to figure out how to run a statewide campaign. One of her fellow-partners had told her that being elected statewide was tough, especially for a first timer. She understood that the post she was running for was non-partisan, and that she would need help from contacts and friends in both the Republican and Democratic parties. After hiring a campaign manager, she began to follow up with these friends and associates around the state.
“The campaign was a blur,” Doyle says, “but I learned some important things about both myself and the people of Georgia. “First, if you are the candidate, you have to put yourself out there – introduce yourself – and not stand in a corner. I learned that I could do that. Second, I learned how warm and welcoming all the people of this state can be. I didn’t meet an unfriendly person anywhere, period. That was wonderful.” With seven candidates in the race, Doyle knew that she needed to make the runoff and then win there. She attended rallies of all sorts around the state – for conservatives with country music singing supporters and for liberals with rap star supporters. She attended them all and made friends wherever she went. When the votes for the general election were tallied, she had come in first. Doyle defeated her opponent in the early December runoff by a margin of 52 to 48%. She had won in Fulton, Dekalb and Cobb counties, but had garnered significant support in all areas of the state. “I was grateful to have won, of course,” say Doyle, “but also a little surprised. A fair number of smart people had told me that it was a longshot, so I would not have been surprised by a loss.”
Doyle found her transition to the Court of Appeals to be surprisingly easy. It was a much more social place than she had expected and not nearly as isolated as one would imagine. Her work involves the constant review of cases that have been appealed and the court hears oral arguments once per month. “We make it a point to hear oral arguments outside of our location in Atlanta,” she says, “in order that justice is seen to be accessible to all citizens of the state.”
When asked what she enjoys most about being a Court of Appeals judge, Doyle says, “I do like it when the Supreme Court agrees with me.” Court of Appeals opinions are subject to review by the Georgia Supreme Court and she is naturally gratified when her opinions are upheld. As one would expect, it takes a well-developed talent to apply established constitutional principles to the cases that are under review and to apply these principles fairly.
“I have very much enjoyed serving on the court and I certainly appreciate the people of Georgia giving me the opportunity. Nevertheless, my goal when I meet people is not for people to like me – I have friends – but instead, it is for them to have confidence in me that I will do the right thing,” she says.
Presiding Judge Sara L. Doyle was elected to her second six- year term in 2014 and recently qualified without opposition for her third term to begin on January 1, 2021.
From July 1, 2015 to June 30, 2017, Judge Doyle was the Court’s Chief Judge where she was instrumental in implementing a historic jurisdiction shift of cases from the Supreme Court of Georgia to the Georgia Court of Appeals adding a substantial number of cases to its docket, managing the addition of a new fifth division adding three more judges to the Court, and working with the legislature to obtain funding for the new Nathan Deal Judicial Center located on the site of the former Archives building across from the Capitol in downtown Atlanta.
In the more than 11 years that she has worked at the Court of Appeals, Judge Doyle has been involved in almost 3000 appeals and authored more than 1470 opinions.
Judge Doyle has remained active in the community joining the Mercer University Board of Trustees and the Board of the Walter F. George Foundation, and has chaired numerous committees for the Judicial Council of Georgia and the Administrative Office of the Courts. Recently she was acknowledged by Girl Talk, Inc. for her role as a leader in the community and recommended to the Governor as one of four persons to interview for an open Justice position on the Supreme Court of Georgia, a process that is currently ongoing.
Doyle has been married for 21 years next month and has a girl age 6 and a boy age 3. She and her family live in the Inman Park area of Atlanta.