Kemp interviews justice candidates in Georgia Supreme Court makeover
Georgia Supreme Court justices applaud outgoing Chief Justice Harold Melton as he presides over his final oral arguments on June 9, the first day the courtroom reopened for in-person proceedings since March 2020. Melton’s resignation effective July 1 allows Gov. Brian Kemp his third opportunity to reshape the court. Stanley Dunlap/Georgia Recorder
The reshaping of the Georgia Supreme Court under Gov. Brian Kemp continues, as new Chief Justice David Nahmias takes the reins and six finalists vie to fill the court’s third vacancy since 2020.
The Republican governor has started interviewing the potential replacements for the seat left vacant after last week’s retirement of Chief Justice Harold Melton, a 16-year veteran of the state Supreme Court.
The next justice will also become the third member to join within the last year for the state’s court of last resort. The justices decide cases as serious as upholding a death penalty conviction as well as whether the government can forcefully take ownership of private property.
“We sort of think of the court as a monolith, but it’s not,” said Amy Steigerwalt, a political science professor at Georgia State University. “It is a small group of nine people, and when all of a sudden three of them change kind of overnight, that’s a huge deal. There are a lot of interpersonal dynamics that go into how the court operates.”
Melton’s departure leaves eight justices until his seat is filled and marks the first time since 1995 that the Supreme Court doesn’t have a Black member. After Gov. Sonny Perdue appointed him in 2005, Melton served with the court’s first Black justice, Robert Benham, until his retirement last year.
But if Kemp’s history of appointments is any indication, the odds are high that the trend of at least one Black justice will continue, Steigerwalt added.
Four of the six finalists referred to Kemp by his judicial nominating committee are Black and three of those candidates are women.
The six finalists are:
- Verda Colvin, appointed by Kemp to the Georgia Court of Appeals last year. She was the first Black woman to serve as a Superior Court judge in the Macon Judicial Circuit.
- T. Mills Fleming, a lawyer with the Savannah firm Hunter, Maclean, Exley & Dunn.
- Aaron Mason, a Clayton County Superior Court judge who was the first Black jurist in Clayton State Court history.
- Shondeana Crews Morris, a DeKalb County Superior Court judge appointed by Kemp.
- Andrew Pinson, solicitor general in the state attorney general’s office.
- Holly Veal, a Henry County Superior Court judge appointed by former Gov. Nathan Deal. Veal was the first Black judge in the Flint Judicial Circuit.
Steigerwalt noted that Kemp has a strong track record of appointing women and minorities to leadership positions. That includes his two Supreme Court appointments: former Fulton County Superior Court Judge Shawn Ellen Lagrua and former state Appeals Court Judge Carla Wong McMillian, the first Asian American woman in the Southeast to serve on a state Supreme Court.
And in June, Kemp also named three women to leadership positions, including Robyn Crittenden who is the first Black person to head the state Department of Revenue.
“From day one of his administration, Governor Kemp has been committed to appointing highly qualified Georgians of all backgrounds to positions throughout state government and the judiciary,” Kemp spokesman Cody Hall said Tuesday. “He will continue to select individuals dedicated to upholding the rule of law, streamlining state government, and putting Georgians first.”
A diverse Supreme Court is vital because justices of varying backgrounds often look at issues differently, especially in a state with a significant Black population and a growing number of Asians and Hispanics, Steigerwalt said.
“An all-white Supreme Court seems odd,” she said. “It simply doesn’t pass what we might say is the smell test to say that there aren’t any candidates of color or any women that are good judges and that are good lawyers who are capable of sitting on the Supreme Court.”
Melton’s replacement is sure to enjoy a significant advantage in a re-election bid.
By announcing his plans to step down in February, Melton gave Kemp the opportunity to hand his next pick the power of incumbency. Last year, a legal challenge failed to take a Supreme Court justice selection away from Kemp when would-be candidates sued to force an election when then-Justice Keith Blackwell resigned with six weeks left in his term. The Georgia Supreme Court quashed the case in the end.
John Ellington is the only one of the current justices who initially joined the Supreme Court after getting elected, Steigerwalt said
“When you appoint someone in the middle of a term, you’re essentially giving them a big advantage when they actually do come up for election,” she said. “In fact, it goes even farther than that. Generally speaking, not only do they win an election, it’s highly unlikely for them to actually even have an opponent.”
Hall noted that the timing of judicial vacancies is based on law and is not unilaterally controlled by the governor.
Steigerwalt said she expects the governor will have someone appointed to replace Melton on the bench this summer even if there is no rush since the court can operate with eight members. If a decision comes to a tie, then the lower court’s ruling stands.
It took only a few weeks after Blackwell’s resignation in December for Kemp to select Lagrua, although Blackwell gave Kemp eight months’ notice of his plans.
For Nahmias,the significance of his newfound power and relationship with colleagues, new and old isn’t lost on him. Neither are the challenges that lie ahead for the state’s judicial system that he’ll help guide.
A veteran of the Supreme Court since Perdue appointed him in 2009, Nahmias now assumes the position that serves as the court’s spokesperson, leads case arguments and justice deliberations and chairs the Georgia Judicial Council, the policy-making body for the judicial system.
Last week, the dignitaries attending his swearing as chief justice at the state Capitol included Melton, former Govs. Perdue and Nathan Deal, FBI Director Christopher Wray and former Deputy Attorney General of the United States Sally Yates.
Nahmias will oversee the emergence of Georgia’s courts from a pandemic that forced courtrooms to close and many hearings to go virtual. Courts across Georgia are now tackling thousands of backlogged cases after Melton allowed a judicial state of emergency to expire last month.
“That’s going to take resources and perseverance and time, two to three years in some places,” Nahmias said. “And when those cases get resolved in the trial courts, the appeals will start. And the Court of Appeals and our court will start working on those while still dealing with the pandemic’s effects on our court system for many years to come.”
Melton, who helped steer the justice system during the pandemic, said he followed a key lesson to navigate the difficulties.
“I learned the importance of hearing from your colleagues and your stakeholders,” Melton said in a June interview with the Georgia Recorder. “The ability to have their input is invaluable. From a decision-making standpoint, from a buy-in standpoint and overall having unity around your ideas.”
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