Supreme Court issues rare emergency order favoring voters who challenge election rules

The ruling was a rare example of the conservative court siding with voters rather than state officials in disputes over election rules, especially when the court is asked to act in an emergency.

The Supreme Court restored a district court ruling requiring that this year’s election for two of the commission’s seats be postponed so that the legislature can create a new system for electing commissioners.
The unsigned Supreme Court order left the door open for Republican officials in the state to try again to revive Georgia’s rules for electing the commission for the November election. However, later on Friday, Georgia indicated in a case in court that he would not ask the appeals court again to stay the trial judge’s order before the November election while the appeal on the merits continues.

Nico Martinez, a partner at Bartlit Beck LLP who represented the challengers, said the Supreme Court order was “an important step in ensuring that the November PSC election is not conducted using a method that illegally waters down the votes of millions of black citizens in Georgia.”

“We look forward to presenting the merits of our case on appeal and are confident that the district court’s well-reasoned decision will ultimately be upheld,” Martinez said in a statement.

The commission is Georgia’s regulator for investor-owned utilities like power plants and telecommunications. Among its functions is the establishment of residential, commercial and industrial utility rates.

Each of the commission’s five seats is assigned a specific district where the commissioner must reside, but the commissioners themselves are elected in statewide elections on a six-year staggered schedule.

The district court judge ruled the general system of electing commission members diluted black political power in violation of federal suffrage law.

But the judge’s decision was later suspended by the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, prompting voters to seek Supreme Court intervention this week.

Arguments in the appeal focused, in part, on the so-called Purcell Principle, which discourages federal lawsuits that would disrupt election planning near an election.

The Supreme Court said the 11th Circuit should not have used the principle to justify stopping the trial judge’s order. Voters challenging the election rules had pointed out that Georgian officials had said the principle would not come into play if they appealed any rulings against the commission’s current election system.

The Supreme Court’s order comes after a series of cases in which justices have toppled along ideological lines over whether lower court rulings in favor of suffrage advocates should be stayed due to the upcoming elections.

In cases of redistricting outside of Alabama and Louisiana, the Conservative majority overturned lower court rulings that would have required maps deemed illegal to be redrawn before the November election. (The high court declined to override some decisions in which a state supreme court, rather than federal courts, ordered the maps to be redrawn).

Similarly, in the 2020 election, the Supreme Court suspended several lower court rulings that would have facilitated voting during the pandemic.

Many of these orders were made without an explanation from the majority, but on a few occasions conservative judges have written to point out that their decisions were driven by adherence to the Purcell principle.

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