The Supreme Court issued an emergency order on Aug. 19 blocking upcoming elections for Georgia’s Public Service Commission, upholding a lower court ruling that found that the election rules currently in place discriminate against black voters.
The order is unusual because, in recent years, the high court has generally been reluctant to side with voters over state officials in disputes over election rules, especially when the court has been asked to act in an emergency posture.
The state’s Public Service Commission (PSC) regulates electric, natural gas, and telecommunications companies. There are five elected commissioners. Since 1906, commissioners have been elected on a statewide at-large basis.
Elections for two of the five seats were scheduled for Nov. 8. If the legal dispute isn’t resolved soon, those elections might not proceed.
On Aug. 5, Judge Steven D. Grimberg of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia issued a 64-page ruling (pdf) finding that statewide at-large elections for the PSC were racially discriminatory because this method of election “unlawfully dilutes the votes of Black citizens under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.”
The system “must change,” according to Grimberg, who was appointed by former President Donald Trump. The challenge to the PSC elections was brought by Georgia voters, one of whom, Richard Rose, is president of the Atlanta chapter of the NAACP.
Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act “prohibits voting practices or procedures that discriminate on the basis of race, color, or membership in one of the language minority groups identified” in the statute, according to a U.S. Department of Justice summary.
“Most of the cases arising under Section 2 since its enactment involved challenges to at-large election schemes, but the section’s prohibition against discrimination in voting applies nationwide to any voting standard, practice, or procedure that results in the denial or abridgment of the right of any citizen to vote on account of race, color, or membership in a language minority group,” the summary reads.
In his decision, Grimberg wrote that at trial, an expert presented “highly persuasive and compelling evidence of racial polarization in PSC elections.”
“In each of the six most recent general and runoff elections for PSC commissioners, Black voters supported the same candidate at a rate greater than 94%,” he wrote. “Despite this strong cohesion, the Black-preferred candidate lost in all elections despite the Black-preferred candidate going to a runoff in two of those elections.”
The Supreme Court’s order (pdf) in the case, which came on Aug. 19, reverses a decision of the Atlanta-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit that would have allowed the elections to move forward. The high court found that the circuit court improperly applied the law and directed it to “reconsider whether a stay pending appeal is appropriate, subject to sound equitable discretion.”
The Supreme Court case is Rose v. Raffensperger, court file 22A136. The application to vacate the appeals court’s stay allowing elections to proceed was presented to Justice Clarence Thomas, who oversees the 11th Circuit. Thomas referred it to the full Supreme Court, which issued the order. No justices dissented from the unsigned order.