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.
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.
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.
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.