ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia's Supreme Court on Monday said it plans to wade into a fight over a seat on its bench, though some of the high court justices recused themselves and substitute judges will sit in.
The fight stems from a decision by Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to cancel a scheduled election for Justice Keith Blackwell's seat on the state Supreme Court after Blackwell announced his intention to resign in November and Republican Gov. Brian Kemp said he planned to fill the seat by appointment.
John Barrow, a former Democratic congressman from Athens, and former Republican state lawmaker Beth Beskin of Atlanta had both planned to challenge Blackwell in an election scheduled for May 19. 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.
Fulton County Superior Court Judge Emily Richardson last week ruled that according to the Georgia Constitution and state law, Blackwell's seat became vacant Feb. 26, when Kemp signed a letter accepting the justice's resignation. Raffensperger was no longer required to hold an election for the seat once the governor signaled his intent to appoint someone to fill it, she wrote.
Barrow filed an emergency request with the Georgia Court of Appeals, asking the lower appeals court to consider his arguments. The Court of Appeals transferred the case to the Supreme Court, saying the “primary underlying issue is an election contest” and those fall under the jurisdiction of the high court.
Barrow then filed a motion asking that the Supreme Court justices be disqualified or recuse themselves from the case, saying the circumstances of the case mean their impartiality could reasonably be questioned.
The same day that the Court of Appeals kicked Barrow's case up to the Supreme Court, Beskin asked the Supreme Court to hear her case.
The Supreme Court on Monday agreed to hear the cases on an expedited basis.
Among the issues the high court asked the parties to address are whether Raffensperger properly treated Blackwell's resignation as a vacancy that could be filled by the governor and whether Blackwell's resignation could be reversed once the governor accepted it.
The court also asked whether Beskin's challenge became moot because she qualified to challenge another sitting justice after her attempt to challenge Blackwell was denied.
Five of the 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, Presiding Justice David Nahmias and Justice Sarah Warren did not recuse. Five judges from other courts were appointed to hear the cases in the place of the nonparticipating justices.
Cary Ichter, Beskin's attorney, said in an email that they are pleased the Supreme Court is taking the case and is acting quickly.
Lester Tate, an attorney for Barrow, said in an email that he's shocked that any of the court's justices plans to participate, saying it's “inconsistent with principles of openness and impartiality.”