ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia's secretary of state legally canceled a scheduled May 19 election for a seat on the state's highest court, a judge ruled Monday, saying the governor can rightfully fill the post even though a judge who is resigning won't leave until November.
Two would-be candidates had accused Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger of violating the law by canceling the election for the outgoing judge's seat.
Georgia Supreme Court Justice Keith Blackwell last month told Gov. Brian Kemp that he planned to resign but would remain on the bench until Nov. 18. In announcing Blackwell's decision, the high court said the Republican governor would name Blackwell's replacement.
But John Barrow, a former Democratic congressman from Athens, and former Republican state lawmaker Beth Beskin of Atlanta had both planned to challenge Blackwell when he was up for reelection in May. When the two tried to qualify for the race earlier this month, they were told the election had been canceled.
They filed separate lawsuits in Fulton County Superior Court asking a judge to order Raffensperger to put the judicial election back on the calendar and allow candidates to qualify.
Judge Emily K. Richardson held a hearing on the issue Friday.
Richardson ruled Monday that according to the Georgia Constitution and state law, Blackwell's seat became vacant Feb. 26, when Kemp signed a letter accepting the justice's resignation. Once Kemp notified Raffensperger of his decision to fill the seat by appointment, the secretary of state was no longer required to hold an election for the position, she wrote.
Even though the effective date of Blackwell's resignation is after the May election, it is still within his current term, which ends Dec. 31, meaning Kemp has the authority under the state Constitution to fill the vacancy by appointment, Richardson wrote.
Lester Tate, an attorney for Barrow, said in an email Monday that he was not surprised by the ruling.
"We believe the ruling is seriously flawed and should be carefully scrutinized by the appellate courts of this state, whose duty it is to protect the constitutional rights of the people," he wrote.
Cary Ichter, Beskin's attorney, said in an email that they are assessing whether to appeal.
"Obviously, we are disappointed with this decision," Ichter wrote. "We believe it is impossible to create an immediate vacancy on the court with a resignation that will not be effective for eight months. And if there is no vacancy, the Governor has no power to appoint a successor."
Ichter said they were especially disappointed for Georgia voters "who will deprived of the basic constitutional right to select a justice for the highest court in the state."
After she was denied the opportunity to qualify to run for Blackwell's seat, Beskin qualified to challenge incumbent Georgia Supreme Court Justice Charlie Bethel in May. But she had argued that if an election for Blackwell's seat was put back on the calendar, she would withdraw herself as a candidate for Bethel's seat and qualify to run for Blackwell's.
Georgia Supreme Court justices serve six-year terms, and Blackwell last ran in 2014.
Blackwell, 44, was appointed to the state Supreme Court by then-Gov. Nathan Deal in 2012. Prior to that, he served two years on the Georgia Court of Appeals. Blackwell appeared on a list of potential U.S. Supreme Court nominees that President Donald Trump made public during his 2016 campaign.
Blackwell said in his resignation letter to Kemp that he plans to return to private practice and spend more time with his family.