ATLANTA (AP) — Two would-be candidates have filed suit against Georgia’s top election official, saying he illegally canceled a scheduled May 19 election for a seat on the state’s highest court to allow the governor to fill the position by appointment when it becomes vacant months later.
John Barrow of Athens, a former Democratic congressman, and former Republican state lawmaker Beth Beskin of Atlanta both planned to challenge Justice Keith Blackwell for his seat on the Georgia Supreme Court in the May election. Then the court announced last Friday that Blackwell is resigning and his replacement will be named by Republican Gov. Brian Kemp.
Blackwell’s announcement said he plans to remain on the bench until Nov. 18 — six months after the nonpartisan election for his seat. Yet when Beskin and Barrow showed up to qualify for the race this week, state officials said they had called off the election.
“His seat is not vacant,” Beskin said Thursday, the day before the qualifying period to sign up for Georgia’s 2020 elections was set to expire. “We should be having qualifying for his seat right now. To cancel an election the day before qualifying, I don’t think it’s legal.”
Barrow said canceling the election amounts to “the ultimate act of voter suppression” by depriving voters of a chance to elect one of the state’s most powerful judges.
“They’re taking this election off the books before the event that authorizes them to do it,” Barrow said after filing suit Thursday in Atlanta.
Both candidates filed separate court challenges in Fulton County Superior Court asking a judge to order Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to put the judicial election back on the calendar and allow candidates to qualify.
Georgia’s state constitution allows the governor to appoint judges to fill vacancies on state courts. Both lawsuits argue Kemp can’t appoint anyone to Blackwell’s seat until the judge has left office, and that the state can’t cancel an election to let the governor to make a future appointment.
“The person who holds that office will continue to hold that office for another eight months,” said Cary Ichter, Beskin’s attorney. “I don’t see how you can call that a vacancy. That justice is still getting paid, still making decisions and his retirement is continuing to accrue.”
Georgia officials declined to give much of an explanation for calling off the election. Blackwell’s seat had been scheduled to appear on the May ballot. Georgia Supreme Court justices serve six-year terms, and Blackwell last ran in 2014.
Raffensperger’s office had no immediate comment, but provided copies of nearly identical letters sent to Beskin and Barrow.
“The Governor’s office informed the Secretary of State’s office that the Governor intended to fill the created vacancy by appointment” to Blackwell’s seat, said the letter Beskin received Tuesday from Ryan Germany, an attorney for the secretary of state. “After speaking with the Attorney General’s office about the situation, our office determined that the most prudent course of action was to cancel qualifying for that seat.”
State Attorney General Chris Carr’s spokeswoman, Katie Byrd, declined to comment on any legal opinions or advice Carr’s office had provided, citing attorney-client privilege. Kemp spokeswoman Candice Broce referred all questions to the secretary of state.
Blackwell, 44, was appointed to the state Supreme Court by then-Gov. Nathan Deal in 2012. Prior to that, he served two years on the Georgia Court of Appeals. Blackwell appeared on a list of potential U.S. Supreme Court nominees that President Donald Trump made public during his 2016 campaign.
Blackwell said in his resignation letter to Kemp that he plans to return to private practice and spend more time with his family.
Kemp already gets to fill another vacancy on the state Supreme Court. The retirement of Justice Robert Benham, who left office Sunday, enables the governor to appoint a successor who won’t have to seek election until 2022. Kemp has not announced his pick to replace Benham.
Blackwell’s resignation announcement said he plans to remain on the court until mid-November to minimize any disruption to the court from back-to-back departures.