ATLANTA – The Georgia Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling Thursday denying a bid by two would-be candidates for a seat on the high court from landing a spot on the June 9 primary ballot.
Former U.S. Rep. John Barrow and former state Rep. Beth Beskin filed separate lawsuits in March after Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, at the request of Gov. Brian Kemp, canceled an election to choose a successor to departing Justice Keith Blackwell.
Blackwell’s six-year term was due to expire at the end of this year. But he notified Kemp in February that he planned instead to resign effective Nov. 18.
Kemp then instructed Raffensperger to cancel the election and that the governor would be filling the seat by appointment.
The high court agreed, declaring in a 6-2 decision Thursday that under Georgia’s 1983 Constitution, a justice’s resignation – once accepted by the governor – is irrevocable.
“When an incumbent justice vacates his office before the end of his term, his existing term of office is eliminated, and the successor justice appointed by the governor serves a new, shortened term that is unrelated to the previous incumbent’s term,” Presiding Justice David Nahmias wrote in a 71-page majority opinion.
The Constitution goes on to provide that an appointee to an elective judicial office shall serve “until Jan. 1 of the year following the next general election which is more than six months after such person’s appointment.”
In this case, that means Blackwell’s successor will serve a term that begins Nov. 18 and runs through Jan. 1, 2023. To continue in office, he or she would have to seek re-election in 2022.
Two of the judges who stepped up to the Supreme Court to hear the case after some of the justices recused themselves dissented from Thursday’s ruling.
“We must reconcile two constitutional provisions,” Judge Brenda Holbert Trammell wrote in a 25-page dissent. “One guarantees the rights of the voters to determine the next justice of the Georgia Supreme Court. The other grants to the governor the right to fill vacancies in such office by appointment.
“[The] majority gives the greater weight to the provisions allowing appointment. Because I feel that this denies the people the right to elect their justice as provided by the Constitution, I cannot agree with the majority position.”
Despite Thursday’s ruling, Beskin is still on the June 9 primary ballot. She is challenging incumbent Justice Charlie Bethel, who is seeking his first full term on the high court after being appointed to the bench by then-Gov. Nathan Deal in 2018.