Georgia’s top judge recently met with Gov. Brian Kemp to express interest in applying for the open U.S. Senate seat, adding a new wrinkle to the behind-the-scenes competition to win the coveted appointment.
Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Harold Melton spoke with the governor last week to discuss the possibility but has yet to submit a resume for U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson’s seat, according to several people with direct knowledge of the sit-down.
Melton would be one of the highest-profile officials competing for Kemp’s favor if he decides to apply. He would also be one of the most unconventional contenders, given his tenure on the bench of the state’s highest court and lack of political experience.
A former lawyer for the state Attorney General’s office, Melton was serving as then-Gov. Sonny Perdue’s executive counsel when the Republican tapped him in 2005 for an open seat on the state Supreme Court bench.
He remains close to Perdue, who praised Melton as someone with the courage to challenge him. At his September 2018 swearing-in ceremony as the court's chief justice, the mercurial former governor drew laughs when he said Melton had no problem telling him, "Governor, you can't do that."
About 500 people have filled out a short questionnaire and submitted their resumes to seek the seat, which is opening after Isakson announced he's stepping down at year's end for health reasons.
Kemp’s pick would stand for election in November 2020 to fill out the remaining two years of Isakson’s term – and be expected to run again in 2022 when Kemp is seeking re-election.
Among the biggest names seeking the appointment are U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, ex-U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston, former Health Secretary Tom Price, and Jan Jones, the No. 2 Republican in the state House.
Some other well-known figures are aiming for the seat, too, including a prominent business executive, current and former state lawmakers, a U.S. ambassador, decorated military veterans, radio commentators and former Kemp aides.
One Democrat has announced a campaign for Isakson’s seat - entrepreneur Matt Lieberman, the son of the former U.S. senator - but several others are considering a bid. Four Democrats are in the other contest against U.S. Sen. David Perdue, who is seeking a second term in 2020.
Kemp has welcomed the applications of state officials and politicians for Isakson’s seat, but he has also said he wants to vet more unorthodox contenders who could appeal to a broader range of voters.
Melton declined to comment through a spokesperson, but his supporters have cast him as someone who fits that bill.
The first black student body president at Auburn University, Melton has carved out a conservative track record on the bench and penned a string of high-profile decisions.
But he’s also never had to take a stance on many political issues that will shape the 2020 race, including his level of support for President Donald Trump. He’s also never faced a contested statewide race, since he ran unopposed the last three elections.
Read more: Who has applied for Isakson’s seat