ATLANTA (CN) — Prompting more than half the justices to recuse themselves, the Georgia Supreme Court announced Monday it will hear two lawsuits brought by would-be candidates for the court after a scheduled election for a vacant seat was canceled.
Five of the eight justices on the court recused themselves from ruling on the fight over outgoing Justice Keith Blackwell’s seat.
Three justices and five substitutes will decide whether Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s decision to cancel the election after Republican Governor Brian Kemp said he planned to fill the seat by appointment unfairly barred former Congressman John Barrow and former state Representative Beth Beskin from qualifying to fill the vacancy.
Blackwell was facing reelection in May before he announced that he will retire in November. Kemp then said he would fill Blackwell’s seat by appointment.
In addition to Blackwell, Justices Charles Bethel, Michael Boggs, John Ellington and Nels Peterson will not participate in the case, leaving Chief Justice Harold Melton, Presiding Justice David Nahmias, Justice Sarah Warren and the substitute judges to handle the appeal.
Melton, Nahmias and Warren denied a motion filed by Barrow requesting that they recuse themselves. The motion argued that the justices’ impartiality could be called into question if they chose to participate in the case.
The three justices stated in an order Monday that they “each carefully considered the motion to recuse him or her” but did not provide any further explanation for their decision.
In a statement Monday, Lester Tate of Akin & Tate, an attorney for Barrow, said he was “shocked” and called the justices’ decision “inconsistent with principles of openness and impartiality.”
In Monday’s order, the court consolidated Beskin’s and Barrow’s cases and agreed to hear the cases on an expedited basis.
Barrow and Beskin each filed complaints alleging that canceling the scheduled May 19 election was illegal and asking a judge to order Raffensperger to reinstate the election and allow candidates to qualify.
Fulton County Superior Court Judge Emily Richardson upheld the secretary of state’s decision last week, finding that a state office is vacated under Georgia law when an official’s resignation from that office is accepted.
Blackwell announced in February that he would step down from the court on Nov. 18, just six weeks before his term expires. Kemp signed a letter accepting the justice’s resignation on Feb. 26.
Richardson ruled that Raffensperger was no longer required to hold an election for Blackwell’s seat once the governor confirmed his intention to appoint someone to the position.
After Barrow filed an emergency request asking the Georgia Court of Appeals to consider his arguments, the appeals court transferred the case to the Georgia Supreme Court because cases related to election contests fall under the high court’s jurisdiction. Beskin also asked the Supreme Court to hear her case.
Barrow and Beskin are ordered to file their principal briefs by Thursday. Raffensperger is ordered to file his response by March 30 and the two plaintiffs must file reply briefs the following day.