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.