July 22, 2024

This story is part of a collaboration with Grist and HONEYCOMB to demystify the Georgia Public Service Commission, the small but powerful state elected board that makes critical decisions on everything from raising electricity bills to developing renewable energy.

The US Supreme Court refused to take up a matter challenging how Georgia she chooses powerful energy regulators, paving the way for delayed Public Service Commission elections in the state to resume. The elections were previously contested by voting rights and clean energy advocates, who argued that the existing system diluted Black votes. The case could affect future legal challenges under the Voting Rights Act.

“The court has spoken,” Mike Hassinger, a spokesman for the Georgia Secretary of State’s office, said in a statement. “We are on track to resume the election for the Public Service Commission in 2025.”

The attorneys who sued said they are considering how to proceed — the commission’s decisions, which include everything from energy rates and rebates to building new power plants, remain as important as ever, they told Grist and WABE.

“People are unable to pay rent, they are unable to feed their families,” said James Woodall, a public policy associate at the Southern Center for Human Rights and one of the plaintiffs in the case. . “So when I think about the decision, or lack thereof, to take on this case, I thought about those people.”

Each of Georgia’s Civil Service Commissioners must live in a specific district, but unlike members of Congress, they are elected by statewide voting. The plaintiffs in the lawsuit, all Black voters in Atlanta, argued this system dilutes their votes and therefore violates the Voting Rights Act. While a federal judge agreed, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which oversees courts in Florida, Alabama and Georgia, reversed that decision. With the announcement that the US Supreme Court will not consider the case, the 11th Circuit ruling will stand, leaving the system as it is.

Public Service Commission, or PSC, elections in Georgia, meanwhile, has been suspended since 2022, when the original judge issued a stay blocking any election until a new system could be devised — a decision the Supreme Court upheld. Two elections were canceled that year, and those commissioners were allowed to continue serving and voting; A third commissioner who was up for re-election this year will also continue to serve without facing voters.

“We had these commissioners in their seats virtually unelected,” said Brionté McCorkle, another plaintiff and the executive director of the nonprofit Georgia Conservation Voters. “They are making incredibly important decisions that affect the lives of Georgians and also affect the climate crisis.”

The five-member Public Service Commission has final approval on most actions taken by Georgia Power, the state’s largest electric utility, including how much the company charges for energy and how it makes that power. Since the cancellation of the 2022 election, the commissioners have the construction of new natural gas turbines as well as bill increases to cover natural gas costs and construction of the latest nuclear reactor at Plant Vogtle. Next year, they will make crucial decisions about Georgia Power’s future energy plans, including possible renewable energy expansions and coal plant closings, and the next few years of power rates — all before voters get a chance to send new representatives to the commission.

Under s state law passed this year, PSC elections would resume in 2025 with voting for two seats. The law lays out an election schedule for all five seats that would leave the current commissioners in power beyond their original six-year terms.

The plaintiffs are considering a challenge to that law, McCorkle said, though they have not made any final decisions.

“We certainly feel that this is all very problematic,” she said of the law’s election schedule. “We are going to keep fighting for the people of Georgia.”

While McCorkle called the Supreme Court’s ruling “a bummer,” she said she also felt “a little bit of relief” because there was no guarantee the Supreme Court would side with the plaintiffs.

Voting rights advocates are concerned about the implications of the 11th Circuit’s ruling, which did not weigh whether the plaintiffs proved their votes were unfairly diluted. Rather, the appeals court argued that a federal court could not overrule the state’s choice to hold general elections because it would violate “principles of federalism.”

“They subscribed to the idea that the state had a vested interest in disenfranchising Black Georgians,” Woodall said. “To me, it’s an endorsement that reflects generations and generations of discrimination.”

Woodall, McCorkle and others said they plan to continue educating Georgians about the PSC, as well as holding commissioners accountable.

“We’re going to make sure that people know who you are and what you do and that they can call you, they can call the commissioners and make sure that their voices are heard and represented in the decisions that they make,” McCorkle said of the commissioners. .

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