Supreme Court Temporarily Blocks Georgia Election Law Said to Harm Black Voters

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WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court temporarily halted an election in Georgia on Friday, reviving a federal judge’s ruling that the state had adopted voting rules that disadvantaged Black voters in violation of a federal civil rights law.

In an unsigned order without noted dissents, the justices wrote that an appeals court’s reason for staying the judge’s ruling — that it had come too close to the election in November — was flawed because state officials had told the judge that there was enough time to make the required adjustments. The Supreme Court vacated the stay and returned the case to the appeals court for reconsideration.

The court’s order was an exception to what legal experts say is a growing trend: a near-categorical ban on late changes to state election procedures even when those changes have been ruled necessary to address illegal infringements of the right to vote. But the exception was based on an unusual concession from state officials and therefore may not have larger implications.

The case concerned elections for the Georgia Public Service Commission, which sets utility rates and has five members. A 1998 law divided the state into five districts, with one commissioner representing each. But the commissioners continued to be elected in statewide elections.

About a third of Georgians are Black, but Black voters are in a majority in District 3, which is made up of counties in the Atlanta metropolitan area. Four Black voters from that district sued to challenge statewide elections for commissioners, saying the practice violated the Voting Rights Act by diluting their power to elect candidates of their choice.

Judge Steven D. Grimberg of the Federal District Court in Atlanta, who was appointed by President Donald J. Trump, agreed, ruling that elections for the two commission seats on the ballot in November could not proceed until state lawmakers eliminated statewide elections for them. The current commissioners, he said, would remain in their positions in the meantime.

An unsigned majority opinion of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Atlanta granted a stay of Judge Grimberg’s ruling. The members of the majority — Judge Adalberto Jordan, appointed by President Barack Obama, and Judge Robert J. Luck, appointed by Mr. Trump — invoked a version of a contested Supreme Court ruling from 2006, Purcell v. Gonzalez, that came to be understood to disfavor changes to voting procedures close to elections.

In a 2016 law review article, Richard L. Hasen, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, coined a phrase for this interpretation of the decision: the Purcell principle.

A twist in the new case from Georgia was that lawyers for the secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, had urged Judge Grimberg to move slowly, repeatedly promising not to raise the Purcell principle on appeal should they lose.

“We won’t make an appeal based on Purcell,” one lawyer for Mr. Raffensperger told the judge.

In dissent, Judge Robin S. Rosenbaum, who was appointed by Mr. Obama, wrote that the clarity of the concession was striking.

“Secretary Raffensperger expressly and purposely waived this argument,” she wrote. “He couldn’t have waived this argument more if he tried.”

In its unsigned order, the Supreme Court agreed. The appeals court, the order said, “applied a version of the Purcell principle that respondent could not fairly have advanced himself in light of his previous representations to the district court that the schedule on which the district court proceeded was sufficient to enable effectual relief as to the November elections should applicants win at trial.”

Shortly after the Supreme Court ruled, state officials withdrew their request for a stay in the appeals court, saying it would be too late to conduct the election even if they prevailed. They said they would pursue an expedited appeal of Judge Grimberg’s ruling on the merits.

In her dissent from the appeals court’s ruling, Judge Rosenbaum wrote that the state law, requiring statewide votes for commissioners representing distinct districts, was odd and troubling.

“If everyone in the United States got to vote on who Georgia’s U.S. senators would be,” she wrote, “I don’t think anyone would think that the system was fair to Georgians.”

In his request for a stay from the appeals court while it considered the state’s appeal, Mr. Raffensperger’s lawyers discussed the Purcell principle only glancingly. But the majority opinion said the principle required a stay that would allow the election to proceed.

The opinion said the concession had been limited to addressing voter confusion and other problems that late changes in voting procedures meant for election administration, leaving open the argument that the state was entitled to full appellate review before Judge Grimberg’s ruling became effective.

“If we are mistaken on this point,” the majority opinion said, “the Supreme Court can tell us.”

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