Georgia Supreme Court Justice Keith Blackwell’s seat was expected to be up for nonpartisan election on June 9, 2020. Blackwell announced in February that he is retiring on November 18. At that time, the state supreme court announced that Governor Brian Kemp (R) would appoint Blackwell’s replacement. The appointment was challenged in court, and the state supreme court ruled in a 6-2 opinion on May 14 that Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R) could not be compelled to hold the election.
Former Congressman John Barrow (D) and former state Representative Beth Beskin (R), who had both planned on running for Blackwell’s seat, filed separate lawsuits in Fulton County Superior Court in March. They asked the court to order Secretary of State Raffensperger to put the election back on the calendar. On March 16, Judge Emily Richardson denied Barrow’s and Beskin’s petitions, holding the secretary of state was not “under a statutory legal duty to hold qualifications for Justice Blackwell’s seat.”
Barrow and Beskin appealed Judge Richardson’s ruling. The appeal was transferred to the Georgia Supreme Court and granted an expedited review. Five of the eight sitting justices recused themselves and were replaced by substitute justices. Chief Justice Harold Melton, Presiding Justice David Nahmias, and Justice Sarah Warren did not recuse themselves.
On May 14, the court ruled in a 6-2 opinion that the governor may appoint a successor and that the secretary of state could not be compelled to hold an election. Presiding Justice Nahmias wrote for the majority, “Even if Justice Blackwell’s office is not vacant yet, if his accepted resignation will undoubtedly create a vacancy in his office on November 18, his term of office will go with him, and the next six-year term of his office that would begin on January 1, 2021, will never exist.”
Two of the substitute justices—Ocmulgee Circuit Superior Court Judge Brenda Holbert Trammell and Fayette Circuit Superior Court Judge Scott Ballard—dissented. In her dissent, Trammell wrote “an appointment is unlawful in this circumstance.”
Blackwell’s seat will be filled using assisted appointment, where the governor chooses an appointee from a list of candidates compiled by the Georgia Judicial Nominating Commission (JNC). Blackwell’s replacement will be Gov. Kemp’s second nominee to the nine-member supreme court.
The terms of Justices Charlie Bethel and Sarah Warren will expire on December 31, 2020. The two seats are up for nonpartisan election on June 9.