Lawsuits: Georgia illegally canceled election to high court

The Georgia Supreme Court meets in the Nathan Deal Judicial Center in Atlanta
The Georgia Supreme Court meets in the Nathan Deal Judicial Center in Atlanta (John Disney/ALM)

ATLANTA – Two would-be candidates have filed suit against Georgia’s top election official, saying he illegally canceled a scheduled May 19 election for a seat on the state’s highest court to allow the governor to fill the position by appointment when it becomes vacant months later.

John Barrow of Athens, a former Democratic congressman, and former Republican state lawmaker Beth Beskin of Atlanta both planned to challenge Justice Keith Blackwell for his seat on the Georgia Supreme Court in the May election. Then the court announced last Friday that Blackwell is resigning and his replacement will be named by Republican Gov. Brian Kemp.

Blackwell’s announcement said he plans to remain on the bench until Nov. 18 — six months after the nonpartisan election for his seat. Yet when Baskin and Barrow showed up to qualify for the race this week, state officials said they had called off the election.

“His seat is not vacant,” Beskin said Thursday, the day before the qualifying period to sign up for Georgia’s 2020 elections was set to expire. “We should be having qualifying for his seat right now. To cancel an election the day before qualifying, I don’t think it’s legal.”

Barrow said canceling the election amounts to “the ultimate act of voter suppression” by depriving voters of a chance to elect one of the state’s most powerful judges.

“They’re taking this election off the books before the event that authorizes them to do it,” Barrow said after filing suit Thursday in Atlanta.

Both candidates filed separate court challenges in Fulton County Superior Court asking a judge to order Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to put the judicial election back on the calendar and allow candidates to qualify.

Georgia’s state constitution allows the governor to appoint judges to fill vacancies on state courts. Both lawsuits argue Kemp can’t appoint anyone to Blackwell’s seat until the judge has left office, and that the state can’t cancel an election to let the governor to make a future appointment.