In short order, Gov. Nathan Deal will lay claim to a rare distinction: He will have appointed a majority of the justices on Georgia’s Supreme Court.
Whomever he taps to replace retiring Justice Harris Hines - the decision is expected as soon as Friday - will be the fifth of nine justices he’s selected for the state’s top court.
His imprint on the court is partly a matter of longevity and partly shrewd political maneuvering. A two-term governor often gets an opportunity to tap one or two justices. But they seldom get the chance to expand the court’s size.
That’s what Deal guaranteed for himself when he engineered legislation in 2016 to expand the court from seven to nine justices. And it passed with little opposition from Democrats who knew Deal would tap young conservatives to those new posts.
That’s been his mantra since taking office. His first appointment to the court, Keith Blackwell, is a well-known conservative who was 37 when he was tapped in 2012.
He was followed by a trio of other younger jurists appointed by Deal in 2016 to a trio of vacancies: Michael Boggs, Britt Grant and Nels Peterson. At 53 at the time, Boggs was the senior in the group, while Grant and Peterson were both 38.
Grant has now been promoted to the federal appeals court bench, and that vacancy, along with the retirement of Hines, gave Deal two last chances to remake the court.
He named Sarah Hawkins Warren, 36, to Grant’s seat last month. And Friday morning he’ll interview finalists for the vacant seat held by Hines.
He’s set to sit down with a pair of Court Appeals judges, Charlie Bethel and Sara Doyle, along with state Rep. Christian Coomer.
The buzz in legal and political circles is centering on Bethel, a 42-year-old former Republican state senator and Deal political ally who was tapped to the appeals court’s bench in 2016.
And court-watchers say Coomer, the 43-year-old chief sponsor of the legislation expanding the Supreme Court’s bench, seems poised for the appeals court slot that could be vacated by Bethel.
Once those picks are hashed out, this also will be assured: Seven of the Georgia Supreme Court’s nine justices will have been selected by Republican governors.