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Greg Bluestein

Georgia’s court system will get a monumental makeover

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Gov. Nathan Deal shakes hands as he departs a high school with chief aide Chris Riley at his side. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

Gov. Nathan Deal shakes hands as he departs a high school with chief aide Chris Riley at his side. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

 

Georgia’s top court system is about to get a monumental makeover.

Gov. Nathan Deal said Monday he would sign legislation that would let him add two justices to the Georgia Supreme Court, giving him the opportunity to appoint a majority of the judges to the powerful court’s bench before he leaves office.

The legislation, which Deal cast as part of his criminal justice overhaul, lets the two-term Republican vastly expand his imprint on the state’s legal system beyond his eight years in office.

Deal won approval last year to tap three more judges to the Georgia Court of Appeals, thanks to legislation he signed that boosts the state’s second-highest court to 15 jurists. And this year’s measure would give Deal the chance to appoint five of the newly-expanded Georgia Supreme Court’s nine justices.

The governor’s sole appointment to the Supreme Court’s bench so far is Keith Blackwell, who was tapped in June 2012. But a court spokeswoman has said two of the court’s six other judges, Chief Justice Hugh Thompson and Presiding Justice Harris Hines, plan to retire before Deal’s tenure is up. Combine those with the two new appointments Deal secured, and he has a chance to reshape the bench.

If history is any guide, Deal will gravitate toward younger, conservative candidates who he views as a shoo-in for election for those two new slots. Appellate court justices must run for six-year terms, but incumbents are rarely ousted.

There was little doubt that Deal would sign the measure, which he said was a necessity for a growing state. His aides were so confident it would be adopted this year that Deal’s budget proposal included $1 million in bonds for the new hires even before the legislation was introduced.

Deal’s proposal surfaced last year as state officials and the judiciary move forward on a new judicial complex down the block from the Capitol, which would be the most expensive state-funded building in state history. A panel that Deal assigned to review the judiciary also recommended lawmakers shift new resources to the appellate court system.

Some legal analysts expressed concern that Deal aimed to “pack” the bench and exert too much influence on the judiciary. But no coordinated opposition by Democrats or other critics emerged to the measure, House Bill 927, which passed with solid majorities in both chambers.

Supporters of the measure, which include many judicial leaders, said it’s needed to help the court system keep pace with the demands of a fast-growing state. Thompson, the chief justice, pointed to projections that show Georgia’s population will add millions more in the next decades.

“We’re trying desperately to be sure our judicial branch of government is up to par for whatever needs that growth will bring,” Thompson said Monday in an interview. “I’m delighted more people will be involved in the process. The more eyes and ears and minds that look at an issue, the more likely we’ll have an opinion that’s correct today and in the future.”

Read more about the Supreme Court makeover here.