Georgia Supreme Court Justice Robert Benham in a 2017 file photo. DAVID BARNES / DAVID.BARNES@AJC.COM
Photo: David Barnes/DAVID BARNES / AJC
Photo: David Barnes/DAVID BARNES / AJC

The Jolt: A race for Georgia’s Supreme Court takes shape

What could be the most interesting judicial race in Georgia just got off to a quiet start.

Georgia Supreme Court Justice Robert Benham is giving up the seat he has held since 1989, when he became the first African-American member of the bench. He is currently its longest-serving member.

Court of Appeals Judge Sara Doyle filed paperwork this week to run for the seat. Doyle was first elected to the appellate court with help from influential conservative attorneys in 2008 and secured another six-year term in 2014. 

If she wins a seat on Georgia’s top bench, she would only be the second woman on the nine-justice court. (Justice Sarah Warren, a recent appointee by Gov. Nathan Deal, is the other). 

But that’s not the only reason this race will be intriguing. He’s declined to comment, but legal circles are abuzz with talk that John Barrow, an ex-congressman and last year’s Democratic runner-up for secretary of state, will also join the contest.

The nonpartisan race would be decided not in November 2020, but in May -- concurrent with statewide primaries.

***

Remember this trio of House members just named by Speaker David Ralston: Marc Morris of Cumming, Eddie Lumsden of Armuchee, and Steve Tarvin of Chickamauga.

They are three of the six state lawmakers (all Republican so far) who will determine whether we take up arms to invade Tennessee – and possibly North Carolina – in order to resolve a boundary dispute that is now 201 years old.

The Joint Georgia-North Carolina and Georgia-Tennessee Boundary Line Commission was created by House Resolution 51, which passed both chambers during the 2019 session of the Legislature. To our knowledge, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan hasn’t appointed his allotted three members.

The gist of Georgia’s beef: Our northern border is supposed to be the 35th parallel, “north of the southernmost bank of the Tennessee River,” according to the legislation. A flawed survey drew the line further south – a result we Georgians have never formally accepted.

Over the last few decades, water rights have become Georgia’s principle motivation for keeping the dispute alive. Yet, however wet the topic, riparian arguments made in court are dry things. They lack romance. There’s no drama to them.

We think Russia’s annexation of Crimea provides a more exciting model: North of Georgia’s supposed “border” is a beleaguered population that speaks our language, worships our God, and no doubt hungers for our culture. We must reach out to protect them.

***

Environmental groups are taking a victory lap after Trump’s new Interior secretary said he has placed the administration’s plans to expand offshore oil and gas drilling in the Atlantic on hold.

Secretary David Bernhardt told The Wall Street Journal the department will likely be forced to wait until a recent federal ruling goes through the appeals process.

“I certainly hope that ‘indefinitely delayed’ is Washington-speak for ‘never,’” said Sierra Weaver, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center.

Greens weren’t the only ones who had been pushing for Georgia and other states to be excluded from the Trump administration’s coastal drilling plans. The Republican-controlled state House passed a resolution opposing offshore energy exploration and seismic testing last month, and Gov. Brian Kemp is also on record against coastal drilling in Georgia.

The Republican argument hasn’t been based on harm done by fossil fuels to the climate, but on the danger that an oil spill might pose to tourism and the fishing industry along Georgia’s coast.

***

U.S. Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., is defending President Donald Trump’s refusal to comply with House Democrats’ recently subpoenas. The Republican said his ally is “not the first president” to bar his aides from cooperating with such congressional inquiries, according to CNN. He told the network:

"Frankly, I think it's absurd. The House needs to decide, are they going to legislate or investigate, and right now they're saying they're going to investigate. The rest of the world out here is going to remember that.”

Perdue last week said “it’s time to move on” from the Russia investigation after the Justice Department released a redacted version of the Mueller report. “No collusion. No obstruction. No kidding.”

***

Vice President Joe Biden’s hiring of Symone Sanders, a prominent African-American strategist, captured plenty of national headlines. We were more interested in another name on the list. 

Kate Bedingfield, a Sandy Springs native and longtime Biden staffer, will serve as the Democrat’s deputy campaign manager and communications director. 

A former John Edwards aide, Bedingfield was an executive for the Motion Pictures Association of America and worked in the White House as Biden’s communications guru.

She’s also a graduate of Sandy Springs Middle School and Riverwood High School, and one of your younger Insiders may have taken her to a ninth grade dance, though the incriminating pictures have quietly disappeared. 

***

We told you on Thursday that Alex Kaufman, a Roswell Republican, is seeking a re-match with Democrat Josh McLaurin, who won the state House District 51 seat last November. Now we’re hearing that, in order to get a second shot, Kaufman may first need to get past a primary opponent. Grant McGarry, a veteran and local businessman, is also interested in becoming the GOP nominee, we’re told.

***

NPR has a lengthy piece outlining Georgia’s conversion therapy measure, House Bill 580, which is pending in the House. 

The proposal by state Rep. Matthew Wilson, D-Brookhaven, would bar mental health professionals in the state from practicing therapy aimed at changing sexual orientation or gender identity on minors. Similar bills have been introduced in 23 other states across the U.S. Read the story here. 

***

After President Donald Trump disembarked from Air Force One in Atlanta on Wednesday and greeted a line of Georgia GOP politicians, the group huddled for a few minutes and broke out into peels of laughter.

We asked Gov. Brian Kemp on Thursday what triggered the outburst - we were too far to hear what was said - he gave a coy grin.

“It was something. The first thing he did coming down the steps, is he kept saying, ‘Marty, Marty,’” said Kemp, who ducked the question about the president’s jokes. 

“You’ll have to ask Chris Carr about that,” he said. 

We did, actually, shortly after Trump’s arrival. And all we got in response was a winky-face emoji.

In a more serious note, Kemp said he used his brief time with the president to press the case to break the Congressional logjam for federal funding for Hurricane Michael relief. 

“He continues to be optimistic,” said Kemp. “That was really my main conversation with him - we’ve got to get that done.”

***

Capitol Hill’s long recesses are a time when many lawmakers hit the road. Most head back to their home districts, some take vacations and others embark on official, government-sponsored trips abroad, known in Washington as codels.

U.S. Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ranger, has apparently been participating in one of the latter on the Dutch island of Curaçao, about 50 miles off the coast of Venezuela. A local news outlet reported that Graves was part of a bipartisan group of seven House lawmakers who met with the nation’s prime minister and other senior government officials to discuss the crisis in Venezuela. They also visited a local synagogue.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.

X