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The U.S. Supreme Court issued a rare emergency order and sided with voters who challenged Georgia’s system of electing members to the state’s Public Service Commission. The case began when a group of Black leaders sued the state, claiming the Republican-controlled General Assembly approved a redistricting plan last year that dilutes the Black vote in two of the five PSC districts.
In early November, a judge postponed two November elections in Georgia for the Public Service Commission, ruling the electoral structure disenfranchises Black voters. One week after that, an appeals court reversed that decision, pending the state’s appeal of that first ruling.
Then, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the elections should not proceed while the appeal continues.
On Thursday, a federal appeals court heard arguments over whether “Georgia’s statewide method for electing members of the Public Service Commission dilutes the power of Black voters in violation of the Voting Rights Act,” Courthouse News reported.
“A group of Black voters sued Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger in July 2020, claiming Georgia’s use of staggered terms, a majority-vote requirement, and unusually large voting districts for PSC elections runs afoul of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which guarantees minority groups equal opportunity to participate in the electoral process. Now the case lies back in the hands of an 11th Circuit panel upon an appeal from Raffensperger, a Republican who argues that Georgia’s polarized voting patterns are influenced by partisan politics, not race,” the outlet added.
“If most Black voters prefer candidates who lose because the majority simply prefers Republicans (regardless of race), Black voters have the same ‘opportunity’ to elect as anyone else,” wrote Stephen Petrany, the secretary of state’s attorney, in his brief to the Atlanta-based appeals court.
“The evidence at trial demonstrated that Black Georgians still suffer from the effects of segregation and discrimination. Dr. Fraga testified that Black voters turn out at lower rates and donate to campaigns at lower rates because of the lingering economic disparities caused by historical discrimination,” wrote Judge Grimberg, a Donald Trump appointee.
However, the three-judge 11th Circuit panel appeared persuaded Thursday by the secretary of state’s argument that the commission’s actions affect Georgians statewide.
“This is not a school board,” Petrany told the panel on behalf of Raffensperger. “It’s a state agency.”
The case is being closely watched because the state’s Public Service Commission, among other responsibilities, sets customers’ utility rates and oversees the construction budget of projects.
Under Georgia’s system, commissioners run statewide but must live in one of five districts.
“The move was a rare example of the conservative court siding with voters over state officials in disputes regarding election rules, especially when the court is asked to act on an emergency basis. The Supreme Court restored a district court ruling requiring that this year’s election for two of the commission seats be postponed so that the legislature could create a new system for electing commissioners,” CNN reported.
“The unsigned order from the Supreme Court left the door open for the state’s Republican officials to try again to get Georgia’s rules for electing the commission revived for November’s election. However, later Friday, Georgia indicated in a court filing that it would not ask again for the appeals court to halt the trial judge’s order before November’s election while the appeal on the merits played out,” the outlet added.
Nico Martinez, a partner at Bartlit Beck LLP who represented the challengers, said the Supreme Court’s order was an “important step toward ensuring that this November’s PSC elections are not held using a method that unlawfully dilutes the votes of millions of Black citizens in Georgia.”
“We look forward to presenting the merits of our case on appeal and are confident the district court’s well-reasoned decision will ultimately be upheld,” Martinez said in a statement.