The Jolt: That time when a Republican governor packed Georgia’s highest courts

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

As Democrats weigh whether to increase the size of the U.S. Supreme Court should they win the White House and control of the Senate, state Republicans might want to think twice about criticizing the effort.

“You know, the Republicans in Georgia packed the Georgia Supreme Court and Court of Appeals during the Deal administration,” said state Sen. Elena Parent, D-Decatur.

She’s right. And Gov. Nathan Deal did so without much of a fight. The Legislature overwhelmingly approved his plan to expand the Georgia Supreme Court from seven justices to nine in 2016, and a year earlier he pushed an expansion of the appeals court from 12 to 15.

By the time he left office, Deal had the rare distinction of having appointed a majority of judges on the state’s two highest courts. He tapped five of the Supreme Court’s nine justices and nine of the Court of Appeals' 15 judges.

The former governor’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. And he used it to stock the court system with young conservatives who are likely to be serving for decades to come.

Georgia is one of two states that have engaged in court-packing, according to research by Marin Levy, a law professor at Duke University. From the Washington Post:

In a study published earlier this year, well before the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Levy documented court-packing attempts in at least 11 states in recent years. Most of those efforts were initiated by Republicans, including the two that succeeded. Moreover, compared with earlier decades, court-packing attempts are now more common and more explicitly partisan.

“The norm against court packing might be more vulnerable than some have thought — at least as it concerns the state courts,” Levy wrote. “If court packing and unpacking were considered strictly verboten, one would not expect to see over twenty different bills to pack and unpack the highest court in eleven different states.”

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A side note: U.S. Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., who is in a tough re-election fight against Democrat Jon Ossoff and Libertarian Shane Hazel, has co-sponsored a proposed constitutional amendment that would prevent the Supreme Court from being expanded beyond the current nine justices.

During Monday’s Atlanta Press Club/GPB debate, ex-AJCer Tom Baxter asked Perdue shouldn’t also include a provision requiring U.S. Senate action to fill vacancies. Because courts can be manipulated by subtraction as well as by addition -- witness the Senate’s refusal to take up the nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court by President Barack Obama.

Perdue agreed that this was a good idea. Twice.

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Some takeaways from the latest SurveyUSA poll for 11Alive, the NBC affiliate in Atlanta:

-- In the presidential contest, Republican incumbent Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden remain deadlocked in Georgia, with Biden at 48% and Trump at 46% — within the margin of error.

-- The race for U.S. Sen. David Perdue’s seat is also too close to call. The Republican is pegged at 46% and Democrat Jon Ossoff at 43%.

-- And Democrat Raphael Warnock continues to climb in the polls, tallying 30% in the free-for-all race for U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler’s seat. She’s at 26% and U.S. Rep. Doug Collins is at 20%.

-- A plurality of Georgia voters surveyed said that the confirmation of a Supreme Court justice should take place after the next presidential inauguration (47%) and that Roe v. Wade should remain the law of the land (48%).

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The tidal wave of cash in Georgia’s Senate races grows even larger: Georgia United Victory, a PAC dedicated to boost U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, reserved about $2.5 million worth of ads for the final stretch. And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s Senate Leadership Fund is spending another $4.5 million to promote U.S. Sen. David Perdue over Democrat Jon Ossoff.

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U.S. Sen. David Perdue was at an Acworth pizza joint on Tuesday with Ivanka Trump, to talk about how great her dad is, according to our AJC colleague David Wickert.

The Georgia senator couldn’t distance himself from President Trump if he tried. Axios offered an example why. The news outlet published a Trump Loyalty Index that gave the Republican a score of 91 - the second highest in Congress. A bit more about the metric from Axios:

The Trump Loyalty Index, built over the past year by Juliet Bartz of “Axios on HBO,” shows in empirical terms the intense loyalty Trump commands. The index measures both voting loyalty, according to FiveThirtyEight’s Trump Score, and how members reacted to seven of President Trump’s most controversial moments.

The bottom line: Critics and dissenters don’t fare well because that’s not what their Republican constituents want. They want Trump and what he represents — suggesting that his style of politics, and the generation of Republicans he tamed and trained, could outlast his presidency and further transform what once was the party of the sunny Ronald Reagan.

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Our AJC colleague Gracie Bonds Staples tried to vote on Monday -- but failed. We’ll let her give you the details, but she’ll try again next Monday.

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According to the Marietta Daily Journal, you can count state Sen. Lindsey Tippins, a Republican from west Cobb County, as yet another Georgia elected official who has come down with COVID-19, and survived. Tippins said he came down with the virus around Labor Day.

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Already posted: U.S. Rep. Doug Collins unleashed one of his most scathing TV attacks yet on U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler with a 30-second spot that frames the fellow Republican as a greedy insider who used her public office to boost her financial bottom line.

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in the Sixth District congressional contest, Republican Karen Handel is out with a new TV ad that alleges an attempted federal takeover of local zoning -- reviving an assault-on-the-suburbs theme President Donald Trump and others tried out during the Republican National Convention in August.

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A super PAC dedicated to electing Republicans to the U.S. House has come to the aid of Rich McCormick, who is in a tough battle against Carolyn Bourdeaux in the Seventh District congressional contest.

The Congressional Leadership Fund’s ad focuses on Bourdeaux’s tenure as the budget director for the State Senate, which occurred during the Great Recession when state lawmakers were forced to tighten the belt. The ad infers that Bourdeaux was calling the shots.

She has said in the past that she was a staffer who provided guidance and recommendations to senators, the majority of whom were Republican. Those lawmakers ultimately made decisions about furloughs and whether to raise taxes, she says.

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Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms was named one of the 2020 “Women of the Year” by Glamour magazine, the AJC’s J.D. Capelouto writes.

The accompanying Glamour profile, written by Atlanta-based author Tayari Jones, includes discussions about Bottoms' family, her battles with Gov. Brian Kemp over coronavirus regulations and recent protests against system racism in Atlanta.

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