A fourth candidate shakes up Georgia Supreme Court race

A fourth candidate entered the race Tuesday for an open Georgia Supreme Court seat, shaking up one of the state's most intriguing contests.

The matchup already pitted a former Democratic congressman, an ex-Republican state legislator and a sitting appellate court judge against one another. Superior Court Judge Horace Johnson’s decision to join the field further scrambles the race.

He is the only black candidate so far in the running for the seat held by retiring Justice Robert Benham, the high court’s first African-American jurist. And he entered after an intense effort in African-American legal circles to draft a black candidate.

Johnson paired his announcement with an endorsement from Larry Thompson, a former deputy U.S. Attorney in George W. Bush’s administration. Thompson called Johnson “fair, experienced, compassionate, in love with the law and determined to get to the right decision.”

Johnson helped integrate Newton County schools in the 1960s, and became one of the first African-American lawyers to work in the county shortly after he graduated from the University of Georgia’s law school.

Appointed to the bench by Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes in 2002, Johnson later served as the first black president of the state Council of Superior Court Judges. He said his experience on the Alcovy Circuit bench, which spans Newton and Walton counties, will serve him well on the state’s highest court.

Johnson faces stiff opposition from three candidates with high name recognition, expansive political and legal networks and proven fundraising potential.

Former U.S. Rep. John Barrow, the runner-up for secretary of state in 2018, has rolled out dozens of endorsements since entering the contest. State Court of Appeals Judge Sara Doyle, the first candidate to announce a bid, has already won a statewide race.

And former state Rep. Beth Beskin entered last month, highlighting her experience with judicial matters and her work in the state Attorney General's office litigating cases of waste, fraud and abuse.

The format of the nonpartisan race makes it even more unpredictable. It will be decided not in November 2020, but in May -- concurrent with statewide primaries. With four candidates now in the field, it likely won’t be settled until a July runoff between the top two finishers.