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Georgia Supreme Court: Kemp can appoint Justice Blackwell’s successor

The Nathan Deal Judicial Center, which houses Georgia’s Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals.
The Nathan Deal Judicial Center, which houses Georgia’s Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals.

The Georgia Supreme Court on Thursday ruled against former U.S. Rep. John Barrow and former state Rep. Beth Beskin in their bid to force an election for the seat of Justice Keith Blackwell, who is stepping down from the court in November.

This means Gov. Brian Kemp gets to appoint Blackwell’s successor, who would then stand for election in 2022.

In a 6-2 ruling, the Supreme Court said Fulton County Superior Court Judge Emily Richardson arrived at the correct conclusion in mid-March dismissing Barrow's and Beskin's lawsuits, but did so using mistaken reasoning.

Justice David Nahmias, writing for the majority, said even though Blackwell’s seat is not vacant at the present time, his resignation became irrevocable when it was accepted by Kemp on Feb. 26. Blackwell’s seat will become vacant when he leaves office on Nov. 18, and “when a vacancy arises in a justice’s office, it is filled not by election but rather by gubernatorial appointment,” Nahmias wrote.

The hotly contested and highly unusual case led six of the state Supreme Court's justices to remove themselves and be replaced by five Superior Court judges. Nahmias' majority decision was joined by Chief Justice Harold Melton, Justice Sarah Warren and Superior Court Judges Richard Cowart, Sarah Wall and Timothy Walmsley.

Superior Court Judge Brenda Trammell, joined by Judge Scott Ballard, dissented.

Trammell, of the Ocmulgee Judicial Circuit, took issue with the majority giving more weight to provisions allowing Kemp the appointment. “Because I feel that this denies the people the right to elect their justice as provided by the Constitution, I cannot agree,” she wrote.

Beskin, who is now running to unseat Justice Charles Bethel, said she was not disappointed with the court’s ruling. For example, she said, the majority agreed with her position that Blackwell’s seat is not currently vacant, contrary to what Richardson had determined.

Former Georgia state Rep. Beth Beskin. (Contributed)
Former Georgia state Rep. Beth Beskin. (Contributed)

“I’m happy to have played a part in helping clarify Georgia election law jurisprudence and further understand the gubernatorial power of appointment,” she said.

Barrow lashed out at the decision, calling it tainted because Nahmias, Melton and Warren refused to step aside from a case involving their colleague Blackwell.

Former U.S. Rep John Barrow, a Georgia Democrat, is  assailing rulings that reject demands to hold an election to fill an upcoming vacancy on the Georgia Supreme Court. (Bob Andres/bandres@ajc.com)
Former U.S. Rep John Barrow, a Georgia Democrat, is  assailing rulings that reject demands to hold an election to fill an upcoming vacancy on the Georgia Supreme Court. (Bob Andres/bandres@ajc.com)

“It’s clear that these justices had an interest in deciding this case, and it’s not hard to see where their interests lay,” Barrow said. These justices misinterpreted the Constitution and blamed the voters who ratified it, he added.

“We’ll continue to see these justices blaming the voters for their bad decisions — until we replace them,” Barrow said.

Still pending is a federal lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Atlanta by three voters, including the widow of late Justice Charles Weltner, who also are seeking to force an election for Blackwell’s seat.