Emergency Order To Protect Black Voters’ Rights Announced

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In an emergency order issued Friday, the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated a federal district court ruling that required the postponement of elections for two seats on a state utilities board in Georgia to allow the drafting of a new system for conducting the races.

The board, known as the Public Service Commission, holds responsibilities like the establishment of residential, commercial, and industrial utility rates. The commission is comprised of five members, and the state is split into five districts, with a member per district — but commission elections aren’t held within individual districts. They’re held statewide, which led to the underlying lawsuit alleging a dilution of the voting power of Black residents of the state in violation of the Voting Rights Act. A district court judge concluded the statewide elections illegally diluted Black voters’ ballots, but the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals suspended the ruling, leading to the request for Supreme Court action.

Georgia leadership indicated in a Friday court filing that the state would not continue seeking the immediate reinstatement before this year’s elections of past methods for conducting races for the state utility commission while the appeals process continues. Now, per attorney Nico Martinez, who represents plaintiffs in the case, the matter is moving to a trial on the merits at the appeals court level. “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 the meantime, the Supreme Court specifically pushed back on the appeals court justifying its suspension of the lower court ruling with the Purcell principle, a legal concept against the notion of federal courts intervening in the conducting of elections close to when those elections are set to take place.

CNN notes the Supreme Court, with its five-member conservative majority, previously sided on multiple occasions with state officials when dealing with issues that could significantly change the calculus of planning for upcoming elections. This case breaks that norm.

In the original lawsuit, Black voters from Fulton County who brought the case note that “Commissioners have been chosen by statewide election since 1906. Yet no African American has ever been elected to the Public Service Commission without having first been appointed by the governor. And even then, only one African American has ever served on the Commission.” At this stage, it seems the appeals court may also once again consider the implementation of a hold on the district court ruling as further litigation unfolds, but such a move would need to rest on procedural grounds other than the Purcell principle — a principle with which Georgia leaders themselves evidently weren’t primarily concerned. The federal district court ruling was issued August 5, so this process of moving through the appeals court, up to the Supreme Court, and back for further consideration at a lower level is moving more quickly than some proceedings might.