Deal budgets for high court expansion before lawmakers can approve it

Gov. Nathan Deal has included money for two additional state Supreme Court justices in his proposed spending plan — even though lawmakers haven’t even begun to consider whether to approve his proposal to expand the bench.

There's no line-item for the court's expansion in Deal's budget plan, but the governor's aides said they included roughly $1 million in bonds for the new hires. The legislation to expand the court still hasn't even been introduced in the Legislature.

Deal won approval last year to tap three more judges for the Georgia Court of Appeals. If successful in expanding the Supreme Court, he would have the opportunity to appoint a majority of the justices before he leaves office.

The governor's sole appointment to the Supreme Court's bench so far is Keith Blackwell, who was tapped in June 2012. But a court spokeswoman has said two of its six other justices, Chief Justice Hugh Thompson and Presiding Justice Harris Hines, plan to retire before Deal's tenure is up.

Adding two more justices to the bench could give Deal the chance to appoint five of the Georgia Supreme Court’s nine justices — giving him a chance to expand his imprint on the state’s legal system far beyond his eight years in office.

Deal has cast the expansion as a necessity for the growing state, and he said it would be an important part of his criminal justice overhaul. Critics have raised the specter of a chief executive "packing" the court. But no coordinated opposition has emerged to his plan, and even prominent Democrats are holding back.

“It’s a dangerous thing for us to expand the Supreme Court without a really clear understanding why,” said House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, D-Atlanta. “I look forward to hearing the rationale and reading the legislation.”