ATLANTA - Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger cannot be forced to hold an election that was scheduled for a seat on the state Supreme Court that will become vacant with the resignation of a current justice, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled on Thursday.
Justice Keith Blackwell was up for reelection in May, but announced before the election that he would resign in November.
His decision to resign was irrevocable once accepted by Gov. Brian Kemp, and under Georgia’s Constitution, such vacancies on the state’s high court are filled by the governor, not by voters in an election, the state Supreme Court said in a 6-2 ruling.
An election for a new six-year term of office for Blackwell’s seat would be “legally meaningless” and “misleading to voters and the public” because when Blackwell resigns in November, that six-year term will go with him, state Supreme Court Presiding Justice David E. Nahmias said for the majority. Instead, Kemp will get to appoint someone for a new, shortened term before that justice goes before voters.
“To the extent that the judicial selection system is subject to the possibility of manipulation by the relevant officials (as almost all government systems are), the checks against such machinations come in forms other than courts altering the Constitution by judicial fiat,” Nahmias wrote.
Blackwell in February submitted a letter to Kemp saying he was resigning from the court on November 18. Kemp, a Republican, accepted his resignation and told Raffensperger he would appoint a replacement, prompting the secretary of state to cancel the election for Blackwell’s seat.
In a dissenting opinion, Judge Brenda Holbert Trammell said the majority was ruling that the “appointment power of the Governor trumps the voting power of the public.” She noted that the election would have preceded Blackwell’s resignation in November and that the court was in agreement that the governor could not appoint a new justice until Blackwell officially resigned.
“This ruling means that even were the election to go forward and a winner be declared, the appointee defeats the electee,” she said.
John Barrow, a former Democratic congressman from Athens, and former Republican state lawmaker Beth Beskin of Atlanta had both planned to challenge Blackwell in the election. After they were denied the opportunity to qualify for the election, they each filed separate lawsuits saying the cancellation was illegal and asking a judge to order Raffensperger to put the election back on the calendar and allow candidates to qualify.
In a statement Thursday, Barrow accused the majority of misinterpreting the state Constitution and said Kemp and Blackwell had “manipulated” the election.
Beskin has since qualified to challenge another sitting justice after her attempt to challenge Blackwell was denied.
She said the state Supreme Court ruling validated some of her legal arguments.
“We now have much clearer guidance going forward about election law and the power of the governor to appoint in vacancies,” she said.
The ruling upheld a March decision by Fulton County Superior Court Judge Emily Richardson.
Five of the state Supreme Court’s justices recused themselves from participating in the case, and a seat vacated earlier this month by former Justice Robert Benham remains empty. Chief Justice Harold Melton, Nahmias and Justice Sarah Warren did not recuse themselves. Five judges from other courts were appointed to hear the cases in the place of the nonparticipating justices.
The failure of the three justices to recuse themselves tainted the ruling, Barrow in his statement.
“No judge should have an interest in deciding a case,” he said.