Voters file federal lawsuit to force election for GA Supreme Court seat

Justice Keith Blackwell, who will retire from the Georgia Supreme Court in November 2020. DAVID BARNES / DAVID.BARNES@AJC.COM)

Justice Keith Blackwell, who will retire from the Georgia Supreme Court in November 2020. DAVID BARNES / DAVID.BARNES@AJC.COM)

Three voters, including the widow of a Georgia Supreme Court justice, filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday seeking to force an election for Justice Keith Blackwell’s seat when he retires in November.

The plaintiffs in the case are Anne Glenn Weltner, whose husband Charles Weltner served as a member of the high court from 1981 until his death in 1992; Francys Johnson, a civil rights lawyer from Statesboro who was director of the NAACP’s Southeast Region; and Laura Register, a South Georgia political activist.

The suit was filed against Secretary of State Ben Raffensperger, who blocked an election for Blackwell's seat after the justice announced in February he was going to retire in November, just six weeks before his term expires.

Former U.S. Congressman John Barrow and former state Rep. Beth Beskin, who both unsuccessfully tried to qualify for the election to succeed Blackwell, are also suing Raffensperger in state court. They are appealing a Fulton County judge's ruling that Blackwell's seat officially became vacant — and eligible to be filled by appointment — when Gov. Brian Kemp accepted the justice's resignation on Feb. 26.

Atlanta lawyer Bruce Brown, who represents Weltner, Johnson and Register, said the federal lawsuit isn’t about Blackwell.

“It doesn’t begrudge him,” Brown said. “It has nothing to do with him. It has to do with the secretary of state and the governor trying to grab an appointment.”

The governor has a duty to appoint a successor and fill a vacancy promptly, the lawsuit said. But that’s not possible in Blackwell’s instance because his seat won’t be vacant until November, the suit noted.

Raffensperger’s cancellation of the election for Justice Blackwell’s position “is an absolute restriction on the plaintiffs’ right to vote,” the lawsuit said. “The only purpose served by cancelling an election when there is no actual vacancy is to avoid an election — that is, to disenfranchise voters.”

Both Blackwell and Kemp could decide that, whatever their personal interests may be, it is better to respect the choice of the people through elections, said the lawsuit, pointedly citing a decision by late Justice Charles Weltner.

“All government, of right, originates with the people, is founded upon their will only and is instituted solely for the good of the whole,” Weltner wrote in a 1982 opinion.

Although Kemp has not appointed a successor to fill Blackwell’s seat, his Judicial Nominating Commission recently forwarded a list of four names for the appointment. They are: Court of Appeals Judge Sara Doyle, Cobb County Superior Court Judge Tain Kell, Fulton Superior Court Judge Shawn LaGrua, and Wade Padgett of the August Judicial Circuit.

Kemp has not indicated whether he will wait until the litigation plays out before making his decision.