Supreme Court tentatively blocks Georgia election method found to be racially discriminatory

FILE - Voters stand in a line as they wait to vote early on Oct. 19, 2020, in Athens, Ga.

The Supreme Court on Friday blocked Georgia from using an election method that a judge found to be racially discriminatory, but the justices’ order left open the possibility that a lower court could reinstate it ahead of the November vote.

The justices’ unsigned order came in response to an emergency request filed earlier this week by a group of Black voters in Georgia. The request came as part of their challenge to the state’s “at-large” method for selecting members to Georgia’s Public Service Commission, which oversees the price of electricity and other utilities.

Under this approach, candidates for the Public Service Commission must reside in one of the five districts they are running to represent, yet voters from across Georgia may cast ballots for all five seats, a method that can make it more difficult for racial minorities to elect candidates of their choosing.

Earlier this month, U.S. District Judge Steven Grimberg ruled that Georgia’s failure to use districts for electing commissioners illegally dilutes the vote of Black citizens in violation of the Voting Rights Act.

But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit last week voted 2-1 to halt Grimberg’s ruling. The appeals court deemed the ruling too close to the November election, when two of the commission’s five seats are up for a vote, which prompted the Georgia voters’ emergency request to the Supreme Court.

Nico Martinez, a lawyer with the firm Bartlit Beck who represents the plaintiffs, hailed the justices’ Friday ruling.

“We are pleased that the Supreme Court took this important step toward ensuring that this November’s [Public Service Commission] elections are not held using a method that unlawfully dilutes the votes of millions of Black citizens in Georgia,” Martinez said. “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.”

An attorney for Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R), the named defendant in the case, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The justices’ ruling lifting the 11th Circuit’s stay may not be the final word on the matter, however. The Supreme Court returned the case to the intermediate appeals court and left the door open for the 11th Circuit court to apply a more rigorous legal analysis of Georgia officials’ stay request.

“The conservative 11th Circuit gets another crack at this under the traditional stay factors, and they could side with Georgia officials on this second bite at the apple,” Rick Hasen, a law professor at UCLA, wrote on the Election Law Blog.

—Updated at 1:32 p.m.

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