Nathan Deal bets on Supreme Court expansion

Credit: Greg Bluestein

Credit: Greg Bluestein

Gov. Nathan Deal seems supremely confident his plan to expand the Georgia Supreme Court will pass the Legislature. So confident that he included money for the two additional judges in his proposed spending plan - before lawmakers have even begun to consider whether to expand the bench.

There's no line-item in Deal's spending plan for the court's expansion, but the governor's aides said they included roughly $1 million in bonds for the new hires. The legislation to expand the court has yet to be introduced in the Legislature.

Deal won approval last year to tap three more judges to the Georgia Court of Appeals. The top court's expansion could potentially give the Republican the opportunity to appoint a majority of the justices to the powerful court's bench before he leaves office.

The governor's sole appointment to the Supreme Court's bench so far is Keith Blackwell, who was tapped in June 2012. But a court spokeswoman has said two of the court's six other judges, Chief Justice Hugh Thompson and Presiding Justice Harris Hines, plan to retire before Deal's tenure is up.

Adding two more judges to the bench could give Deal the chance to appoint five of the Georgia Supreme Court's nine justices — giving him a majority of the court's appointments and a chance to expand his imprint on the state's legal system far beyond his eight years in office.

Deal has cast the expansion as a necessity for the growing state, and said it would be an important part of his criminal justice overhaul. Critics have raised the specter of a chief executive "packing" the court. But no coordinated opposition has emerged to his plan, and even prominent Democrats are holding back.

"It’s a dangerous thing for us to expand the Supreme Court without a really clear understanding why," said House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams. "I look forward to hearing the rationale and reading the legislation."

The spending plan also included another boost to the judiciary: A $6.5 million item to design and prepare the land for a new state courthouse that would be built near the Capitol.