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Attorney: Georgia followed law in canceling court election

ATLANTA (AP) — An attorney said in court Friday that Georgia's top election official followed the law when he canceled a May election to the state Supreme Court to allow the governor to appoint a replacement for a sitting justice who won't leave office until November.

John Barrow, a former Democratic congressman from Athens, and former Republican state lawmaker Beth Beskin of Atlanta are both suing Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger after they were denied a chance to run for the seat on Georgia's highest court.

Justice Keith Blackwell's six-year term on the Georgia Supreme Court ends Dec. 31, meaning he was due to seek reelection this year. Instead, the court announced last month that Blackwell plans to resign and that his replacement will be named by Republican Gov. Brian Kemp.

Blackwell said in a resignation letter to Kemp that he won’t step down from the bench until Nov. 18, six months after the nonpartisan election for his seat was scheduled to be held in May.

Both Beskin and Barrow say Raffensperger illegally canceled the May 19 election. They're asking a judge to order him to put the contest back on the calendar and to allow candidates to qualify.

The Georgia 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 make a future appointment.

The state responded in court Friday morning at a hearing before Fulton County Superior Court Judge Emily Richardson.

Russ Willard, a state attorney representing Raffensperger, said that under Georgia law, a seat is considered vacant and the appointment process can begin once a resignation is accepted by the governor.

“Once that resignation has been accepted, the mechanism for appointment begins,” Willard said.

Willard argued that such an appointment process allows for smooth transitions of government.

Attorneys representing Beskin and Barrow pushed back against those arguments and said that the vacancy isn’t created until a person actually leaves the seat.

Richardson, who asked pointed questions of both sides during the proceedings Friday, said she planned to make a ruling on Monday.

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