Georgia House backs expansion of state Supreme Court

ATLANTA (AP) - The Georgia House on Thursday approved Gov. Nathan Deal's proposal to add two justices to the Supreme Court, potentially giving the Republican governor a lasting impact on the state's highest court.

Georgia's Constitution already permits up to nine justices, but state law provides for seven.

Under the bill, Deal would appoint justices to fill the new high court seats. If the proposal becomes law, Deal will have appointed at least five justices by the time he leaves office at the end of 2018.

Two sitting justices are expected to retire before Deal's term ends, because Georgia's Constitution requires that justices retire by age 75 or risk their retirement benefits. Court spokeswoman Jane Hansen said Tuesday that Chief Justice Hugh Thompson would need to retire by July 2018 and Presiding Justice P. Harris Hines by September 2018.

Deal also appointed Justice Keith Blackwell to the court in 2012.

House members approved the measure, 120 to 45.

Deal's spokeswoman Jen Talaber declined to comment on the bill Thursday.

Rep. Christian Coomer, one of Deal's floor leaders, sponsored the measure. Coomer, R-Cartersville, told House members that the state's growing population and economy require more Supreme Court justices.

A larger court could be more efficient, for example, by allowing 3-member panels to review cases and make recommendations to the full body, Coomer said.

The measure also removes some types of court cases from the Supreme Court's responsibilities, following a recommendation made by a panel Deal appointed last year. Matters involving land titles, equity, wills, extraordinary remedies and divorce and alimony would move to the Georgia Court of Appeals. Those cases represented about 23 percent of the Supreme Court's caseload during the last three years, according to the panel's report.

In his State of the Judiciary speech to legislators last month, Supreme Court Chief Justice Hugh Thompson said the changes would not lessen the high court's overall workload.

"Rather, the intent is to free up the state's highest court to devote more time and energy to the most complex and the most difficult cases that have the greatest implications for the law and society at large," he said in his prepared remarks.

House Democrats and a handful of Republicans voted against the measure. Minority Leader Stacey Abrams said lawmakers should see how the changes to the court's responsibilities affect its workload before adding new justices.

"To simultaneously increase the size of the court without really understanding the necessity, I find problematic," Abrams said. "There are political concerns, always, about appointments to the court and the positions that those new justices would take. I think that's inherent in any changes you make to the judiciary."

Georgia Supreme Court seats come up for election every six years, but incumbents rarely lose.

Georgia State University law professor Neil Kinkopf said the current court makeup proves that, noting that even though Republicans have taken overwhelming control over the state over the past decade or so, Democratic appointees to the high court have managed to hold onto their seats, even in the face of significant efforts to oust them.

Kinkopf is skeptical of adding justices, likening the effort to an attempt by former U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to add U.S. Supreme Court justices when he was frustrated by sitting members' rulings.

"There is no credible substantive case on the merits for expanding the size of the Georgia Supreme Court," he said.

Georgia would join three states where nine justices serve on highest courts, according to data kept by the National Center for State Courts. Two states have split their high courts: Texas has separate nine-member panels for civil and criminal issues and Oklahoma has a nine-member Supreme Court for civil matters.

Georgia isn't the only state considering a change this year. Lawmakers in Arizona are debating adding 2 members to its five-member court, while lawmakers in Washington are trying to cut its nine-member court to five.

The Georgia bill now goes to the state Senate for review.