January 9, 2017, Atlanta - Justice Robert Benham speaks during oral arguments in Atlanta, Georgia, on Monday, January 9, 2017. The Georgia Supreme Court is meeting for the first time this year with a new chief justice and two additional justices. (DAVID BARNES / DAVID.BARNES@AJC.COM)
Photo: David Barnes/DAVID BARNES / AJC
Photo: David Barnes/DAVID BARNES / AJC

The Jolt: Behind Robert Benham’s decision to leave the state Supreme Court

Plenty of head-scratching has been prompted by Georgia Supreme Court Justice Robert Benham’s sudden decision to step down on March 1, rather than retire when his six-year term expired at the end of 2020.

Part of the mystery, as we understand it, is that the justice has had no direct conversations with Gov. Brian Kemp, who will now appoint his replacement. Under Georgia law, the timing of the replacement will also move the statewide election for that seat forward two years, to 2022.

Still, though Benham might not have reached out to Kemp, or vice versa, we’re told that a sense of history factored into the justice’s decision. Benham is the first African American to serve on the state’s highest court, and his departure leaves only one other black member on the nine-member bench -- Harold Melton, who is the current chief justice.

The four-way race for Benham’s spot involved three white candidates – former U.S. Rep. John Barrow, a Democrat; ex-state Rep. Beth Beskin, a Republican; and Appeals Court Judge Sara Doyle. One African-American contender, Alcovy Circuit Superior Court Judge Horace Johnson, announced his candidacy in October. (The Alcovy circuit covers Walton and Newton counties.)

Wide-open judicial contests are famously unpredictable, and there’s no telling what might have happened in the May vote. But Barrow and Doyle had built formidable campaign treasuries and tallied a slew of endorsements.

Benham may be banking on Kemp’s penchant for making diverse appointments to judicial posts that have delighted even his staunchest critics.

Barrow said in a statement Tuesday that he was “disappointed for the voters, who’ve lost their first chance to fill an open seat on the Supreme Court since 1982.” He added that he has yet to decide whether he’ll continue his campaign or seek another seat.

“I decided to run for this office because I believe we need more balance on the Supreme Court,” said Barrow. “We don’t know who the governor is going to choose for this seat, so we need to reserve judgment.”

Johnson, meanwhile, implied to The Daily Report that he intends to apply with the Judicial Nominating Commission for the seat. From the legal news site:

“Justice Benham has certainly earned the right to conclude his illustrious legal career in the way he deems most appropriate,” Johnson said. “I thank him for mentoring me over the last thirty (30) plus years as a lawyer and judge. It remains my goal to succeed him.”

Aside from Johnson, another potential African-American appointee whose name has been floated is Tabitha Ponder Beckford, a former public defender who had been running for a court of appeals seat. Another possible candidate is Appeals Court Judge Carla Wong McMillian. There is currently only one woman on the high court.

***

Here’s hoping Chris Wray didn’t exit the Atlanta real estate market when he left for Washington D.C. to head up the FBI.

On Monday, that inspector general report on the FBI investigation into possible links between the presidential campaign of Donald Trump was finally made public.

The report described a series of major errors and omissions related to surveillance warrants targeting a former Trump campaign aide, but nonetheless found that the agency had sufficient grounds to begin the probe, and that no spies or plants were inserted into the Trump campaign -- contrary to what President Trump has claimed.

U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr, Wray’s boss, quickly let it be known that he doesn’t agree that the FBI was right to investigate the Trump campaign.

Yet on Tuesday, Wray was interviewed by ABC News. The former Atlanta attorney expressed agency contrition for employee mishandling of FISA warrants, but then there was this:

Asked whether he thought the FBI unfairly targeted the Trump campaign, Wray offered a blunt assessment: "I do not."

Wray also pushed back on a widely debunked theory put forth by the president and his allies that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the 2016 election – and sounded the alarm on the Kremlin’s plans for the 2020 cycle.

“We have no information that indicates that Ukraine interfered with the 2016 presidential election,” Wray said, adding that “as far as the [2020] election itself goes, we think Russia represents the most significant threat.”

The Twitter reaction from President Trump came this morning, and suggested that Wray’s job might be at stake:

I don’t know what report current Director of the FBI Christopher Wray was reading, but it sure wasn’t the one given to me. With that kind of attitude, he will never be able to fix the FBI, which is badly broken despite having some of the greatest men & women working there!

***

Democrat Zahra Karinshak picked up an important endorsement Tuesday in her bid for Georgia’s 7th Congressional District.

The VoteVets PAC endorsed the state senator, a U.S. Air Force veteran, saying her “spirit of service and patriotism makes her a great candidate and a great future member of Congress.”

She’s one of a handful of Democrats competing to represent the Gwinnett-based district, held by retiring Republican Rep. Rob Woodall.

***

We’re late to this, but former Georgia senator Sam Nunn was on Fox News Sunday. When his host, Chris Wallace, pushed him on the impeachment of President Donald Trump, Nunn suggested an alternative:

Wallace: Do you see the push by House Democrats for impeachment now as a sign of the breakdown in civility?

Nunn: Well, I'm concerned about it. I'm concerned about the fact that the Republicans and Democrats are not coming together. The people have made up their mind long before the evidence has all been completed. And if you're thinking about impeachment, you have to ask yourself, what happens if it goes to the Senate? If we don't have Republicans on board, is it just going to wither away, is there going to be any condemnation?

I think a serious option ought to be considered is -- in the Houses is censure. Censure can condemn the conduct without basically taking away the right of the American people to make the decision on who our leaders should be.

Wallace: But, I mean, just to follow up on this, when you talk to Democrats, they say no, no way, and the president no -- no way. So it doesn't seem like the -- anybody wants to take that off ramp.

Nunn: Well, is -- everybody's against it, the Republicans are against it, the Democrats are against it, the president is against it, but I think their behavior, prima facie case -- we need to hear all the evidence, but prima facie case is, there was a very bad mistake made here in terms of basically extorting a foreign country with appropriated funds that had already been passed to help in a military emergency in exchange for going after a political opponent.

That's a prima facie case. And it seems to me that kind of behavior at least has to be condemned. But I think censure ought to be looked at very carefully by everybody. Maybe the fact that all parties are against it means it's the right way to go.

***

Georgia Republicans on Tuesday happily amplified a Tweet from state Rep. Dar’Shun Kendrick, D-Lithonia, in which she wondered how Democratic presidential candidates were “going to message on the economy given the past jobs report which was better than expected?”

“If we don’t get it right on the economics or the economy doesn’t take a nose dive, I fear we might lose to President ImAnut,” added Kendrick, one of the top Democrats in the House, referring to President Donald Trump. 

“Thanks, Dar’shun! We agree- With a booming economy and record low unemployment under President @realDonaldTrump, 2020 looks bleak for @TheDemocrats. How sad though- you would rather see more Americans unemployed just to put a Democrat candidate in office!” the Georgia GOP responded.

Kendrick riposted that she’s concerned Democrats “won't be able to effectively message the TRUTH about the report in that its providing low quality and low paying jobs and that's why unemployment lowered.” 

***

In Washington, congressional leaders have hashed out a compromise on military spending, setting up a vote likely this week for the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act. You can read more policy details here, but several Georgia bases will benefit. For example:

-- Fort Gordon near Augusta is in line for $67 million for its cyber instructional facility;

-- Hunter Army Airfield near Savannah will receive $62 million for an aircraft maintenance hangar;

-- We also see line items for Robins Air Force Base ($43 million) in Houston County, National Guard projects at Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport ($24 million), and Moody Air Force Base near Valdosta ($12.5 million).

***

A federal judge has ordered Gov. Brian Kemp to explain comments he made about minority voter participation and how it affected his handling of elections investigations, the AJC’s Mark Niesse reports:

U.S. District Judge Steve Jones ruled that Kemp must submit to two hours of questioning in a lawsuit over problems in last year’s election for governor. As secretary of state, Kemp was Georgia’s chief elections official until he resigned after Election Day.

The lawsuit is asking the courts to intervene in Georgia’s elections following voter purges, absentee ballot cancellations, precinct closures and other allegations of obstacles to voting. The lawsuit was filed by Fair Fight Action, a group founded by allies of Kemp’s opponent, Democrat Stacey Abrams.

“Only then-Secretary Kemp can explain what he actually meant” when he expressed concerns about Democrats’ efforts to register more minority voters, Jones ruled Thursday.

Kemp’s comments about minority voters came during remarks to a group of Gwinnett County Republicans in 2014

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