Supreme Court won't hear case claiming discrimination in Georgia Public Service Commission elections

FILE - The five Republican members of the Georgia Public Service Commission meet Dec. 19, 2023, in Atlanta. The U.S. Supreme Court, Monday, June 24, 2024, declined to hear a challenge to the statewide election of commissioners, which should allow stalled commission elections to resume in 2025. (AP Photo/Jeff Amy, File)

The U.S. Supreme Court won’t hear a case challenging Georgia’s system of electing utility regulators statewide, a decision likely to clear the way for resuming elections to the Georgia Public Service Commission.

The high court on Monday rejected claims that the power of Black voters was illegally diluted because the five commissioners are elected statewide. A lower court said such statewide votes were discriminatory, which could have been a pathbreaking ruling if it stood. It would have mandated elections by district, potentially sparking challenges to statewide elected bodies in other states with large numbers of Black voters.

However, a three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the ruling in November, saying Georgia was free to choose its form of government for the commission.

“We’re obviously very disappointed that the Supreme Court chose not to take up the case,” said Bryan Sells, a lawyer for the challengers.

Mike Hasinger, a spokesperson for Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, said the state believes it is on track for elections to resume in 2025.

Voters have for decades challenged at-large election systems in local governments with large numbers of Black voters, often winning on the grounds that a white majority votes together to entirely exclude the preferred candidates of Black voters. Usually a court orders voting by district to remedy the discrimination proved at trial.

Georgia’s Public Service Commission has gone years without having elections because votes were paused during the lawsuit.

Anticipating that a court would order elections to resume after the 11th Circuit ruling, Georgia lawmakers earlier this year added an extra two years to the current terms of commissioners on the all-Republican body. Each will eventually revert back to six-year terms.

Plaintiffs have said that it’s bitterly ironic that a lawsuit intended to force more representation on the body has resulted in commissioners getting more years on the board with no elections at all. Sells said plaintiffs haven’t decided whether to ask U.S. District Judge Steven Grimberg to overrule the law and order new elections on a different schedule.

The commission regulates what Georgia Power Co. and some natural gas companies charge. It has in recent years allowed Georgia Power, a unit of Atlanta-based Southern Co., to increase what it charges customers.

The extra years could prevent a majority of the commission seats from being elected at the same time when elections resume, meaning Democrats couldn’t take control in one election.

Commissioners Tim Echols and Fitz Johnson were supposed to run in 2022, but remain on the commission today. The 11th Circuit in April had ruled the state could resume elections. But Raffensperger had already said it was too late to schedule an election for them and for Commissioner Tricia Pridemore, whose term expires this year.

Under the new law, Echols and Johnson would stand for election in 2025. Johnson was appointed to the commission in 2021 and was supposed to run for the last two years of his predecessor’s term in 2022, before running again in 2024. Instead he would run again for a six-year term in 2026. Echols would serve for five years until 2030, facing voters only twice in 14 years, before resuming regular six-year terms.

Pridemore would see her term extended until 2026, serving for eight years. Commissioners Jason Shaw and Bubba McDonald, scheduled for reelection in 2026, would instead serve until 2028. Their positions would then revert to six-year terms.