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In filling another Supreme Court vacancy, Gov. Deal achieves milestone

Gov. Nathan Deal on Friday filled yet another vacancy on the Georgia Supreme Court, giving him the rare distinction of having appointed a majority of justices on the state’s highest court.

Court of Appeals Judge Charlie Bethel, a former Republican state senator from Dalton and a Deal ally, will replace Harris Hines, who recently retired from the state Supreme Court. Deal also announced his appointment of House Majority Whip Christian Coomer, R-Cartersville, to take Bethel’s seat on the appeals court.

Charlie Bethel in 2015, when he was a Georgia state senator. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

“I’m really humbled and honored the governor has placed this level of confidence in me,” the 42-year-old Bethel said. “It will be my goal to prove him correct and to provide a level of service the people of Georgia deserve.”

Deal, a former district attorney and juvenile court judge, will have made an indelible imprint on the state’s legal system by the time he leaves office at the end of this year. His criminal justice reform initiatives expanded accountability courts, modified the juvenile justice system and stemmed a rising — and expensive — prison population.

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But Deal’s transformation of the state’s top two appellate courts has also been profound. He has now appointed five of the Supreme Court’s nine justices and appointed nine of the Court of Appeals’ 15 judges.

“He’s really had a chance to remake the courts and he’s taken full advantage of it,” said Leah Ward Sears, a former chief justice who retired from the Supreme Court in 2009. “The people he’s appointing are quite conservative and, by and large, they’re much younger, too.”

Deal’s mark on the court is partly a matter of longevity and partly shrewd political maneuvering. Two-term governors often get an opportunity for multiple appointments, but they seldom get the chance to expand the court’s size.

That’s what Deal guaranteed for himself with legislation that passed the General Assembly in 2016. The bill, the chief sponsor of which happened to be Coomer, increased the number of Supreme Court justices from seven to nine and the number of Court of Appeals judges from 12 to 15. And it allowed Deal to fill those five new vacancies at the beginning of 2017.

State House Majority Whip Christian Coomer, R-Cartersville, will take Charlie Bethel’s seat on the Court of Appeals, Gov. Nathan Deal announced on Friday, Sept. 14, 2018.  BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

Far more often than not, the governor has appointed young, conservative jurists who are members of The Federalist Society, which plays an influential role in putting conservative judges on the bench. And Deal has often elevated Court of Appeals judges to the state Supreme Court bench, giving him yet another vacancy to fill on the lower court.

Deal followed that script with his first appointment to the Supreme Court in 2012 when he picked Court of Appeals Judge Keith Blackwell, then 37 and a well-known conservative.

In 2016, Deal filled three new vacancies on the Supreme Court with state Solicitor General Britt Grant and Appeals Court Judges Michael Boggs and Nels Peterson.

Grant and Peterson were both 38 when they became justices. Boggs, 53 at the time, seemed to be an exception. But he had spearheaded Deal’s criminal justice reform efforts.

In August, Grant, a President Donald Trump nominee, became a judge on the federal appeals court in Atlanta. Her state Supreme Court vacancy, along with the retirement of former chief justice Hines, gave Deal two last chances to reshape the court.

President Donald Trump is packing the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals with conservative jurists. The court, based in Atlanta, has 12 judges and serves Georgia, Alabama and Florida. Trump has placed two new judges on the court already —Elizabeth Branch and Kevin Newsom. A third nominee, Britt Grant, is expected to be confirmed. A dispute with Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) is holding up her confirmation.

Last month, the governor picked Sarah Hawkins Warren, 36, to replace Grant. Just like her predecessor, Warren is a member of The Federalist Society and was solicitor general, the state’s top appellate lawyer.

On Friday, Deal filled the final vacancy with his appointment of Coomer to the Appeals Court. Coomer, 43, was first elected to the state House in 2010.

“I’m grateful to Governor Deal for the faith and trust he’s placed in Charlie Bethel and me,” Coomer said. “I hope to spend my time on the bench making sure people have equal access to the courts, that the court is responsive to the communities it serves, and that the litigants who approach the court have predictable outcomes.”

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