For The Record

Court battles escalate to force election to replace Justice Blackwell

By: - April 2, 2020 8:25 pm

Supreme Court Justice Keith Blackwell announced in February that he plans to resign in November. A federal lawsuit claims Georgia voters and not Gov. Brian Kemp should determine his successor. Jill Nolin/Georgia Recorder

The battle over whether Gov. Brian Kemp or voters should determine who fills a Georgia Supreme Court justice seat is spilling over into federal court after a former chief justice’s widow and two others sued Georgia’s Secretary of State this week.

The U.S. District Court lawsuit says Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger violated state law and disenfranchised voters, violating civil rights laws when he cancelled the scheduled May election to fill the position held by Justice Keith Blackwell. Blackwell announced in February his plan to resign on Nov. 18.

Ann Glenn Weltner, the widow of former state Supreme Court Chief Chief Charles Weltner, joined former Grady County school board member and south Georgia political strategist Laura Register and former NAACP president Francys Johnson in asking the court to order the reinstatement of the nonpartisan general election.

The lawsuit contends the seat should be up for election this year since the position isn’t vacant yet. Blackwell’s six-year-term ends on Dec. 31, however if Kemp appoints the successor then that new justice would serve until Jan. 1, 2023.

“This issue is brought by voters who claim by federal law that their right to vote has been abridged,” said Atlanta attorney Bruce Brown, who represents three plaintiffs in the lawsuit. “We think he should be replaced with an elected justice rather than the governor using his power to make the appointment.”

“Though the Georgia Constitution states that ‘when any public office shall become vacant by death, resignation, or otherwise, the Governor shall promptly fill such vacancy,’ Governor Kemp did not promptly fill such vacancy, because, obviously, there was no vacancy to fill,” the lawsuit states.

A Raffensperger spokesman declined comment.

Former U.S. Rep. John Barrow and former state Rep. Beth Beskin, two would-be candidates for Blackwell’s seat are appealing Fulton County Superior Court rulings that Kemp can legally make the appointment. Their attempts to qualify for Blackwell’s seat were rebuffed by Raffensperger and their emergency appeal to the Georgia Supreme Court is pending.

Blackwell, who has served as a justice since 2012, cited family obligations and plans to resume practice as a private attorney as his reasons for leaving the bench.

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Stanley Dunlap
Stanley Dunlap

Stanley Dunlap has covered government and politics for news outlets in Georgia and Tennessee for the past decade. At The (Macon) Telegraph he told readers about Macon-Bibb County’s challenges implementing its recent consolidation, with a focus on ways the state Legislature determines the fate of local communities. He used open records requests to break a story of a $400 million pension sweetheart deal a county manager steered to a friendly consultant. The Georgia Associated Press Managing Editors named Stanley a finalist for best deadline reporting for his story on the death of Gregg Allman and best beat reporting for explanatory articles on the 2018 Macon-Bibb County budget deliberations. The Tennessee Press Association honored him for his reporting on the disappearance of Holly Bobo, which became a sensational murder case that generated national headlines.