Appellate court upholds statewide PSC elections

ATLANTA – A federal appellate court has upheld the method Georgia uses to elect members of the state Public Service Commission (PSC), reversing a lower-court ruling.

In a decision handed down late last week, the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals endorsed the system of electing the five commissioners statewide rather than by district.

A lawsuit filed by four Black Fulton County residents had argued that electing the commissioners statewide diluted Black voting strength in violation of the federal Voting Rights Act, making it more difficult for Black voters to elect a candidate of their choice. Specifically, the suit targeted a map of the PSC districts the General Assembly’s Republican majorities approved last year.

The state argued that have a statewide body in charge of regulating energy in Georgia would avoid provincialism. On Friday, the appellate court agreed in a 34-page ruling.

“If each commissioner represented only a district, then important questions of utility regulation – such as the location of energy and infrastructure – could turn into a zero-sum game between commissioners beholden to their districts instead of a collaborative effort to reach the best result for the entire state,” the three-judge appellate panel wrote.

The decision would appear to clear the way for elections to the PSC, which have been on hold while the case was pending.

The terms of two commissioners – Tim Echols and Fitz Johnson – expired at the end of last year, but the two were allowed to continue in their seats.

Foster care study committee makes recommendations

State Sen. Kay Kirkpatrick

ATLANTA – A combination of legislation and spending increases are needed to improve Georgia’s foster care system, according to a report a legislative study committee adopted Monday.

The state Senate Study Committee on Foster Care and Adoption unanimously recommended legislation to shorten the time it takes children entering the foster care system to reach a permanent status – either reunification with parents or adoption – and to provide free photo IDs to foster kids.

Recommendations including pay raises for case managers, an increase in monthly adoption assistance rates, and making mental-health services available to foster and adoptive parents would require budget increases.

The Georgia Senate has put an emphasis on improving the state’s foster care system this year. Lt. Gov. Burt Jones, who presides over the Senate, created a new Children and Families Committee in the upper chamber at the beginning of this year’s General Assembly session in January, then led the way in forming the study committee.

“I think we’re going to make a lot of progress,” Sen. Kay Kirkpatrick, R-Marietta, who chairs both the standing and study committees, said after Monday’s vote. “There’s a window of opportunity because of support from the lieutenant governor and the commissioner (of the state Department of Human Services).”

Georgia’s foster care system was hit with a flurry of negative publicity late last month when a U.S. Senate subcommittee chaired by Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., unveiled a previously undisclosed internal audit that revealed the state Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS) failed in 84% of cases brought to its attention to address risks and safety concerns.

Ossoff also held a news conference during which he reported nearly 1,800 children in state custody were reported missing between 2018 and last year.

In response, DFCS officials charged that the probe was politically motivated. Three lawyers for DFCS wrote in a letter that the subcommittee failed to request relevant information or responses from the the agency in advance of its publicized hearings and news conferences.

On Monday, the Senate study committee also recommended establishing a system of family courts in Georgia dedicated to cases involving children up to the age of three. Kirkpatrick said the state is working to launch pilot projects for the “infant-toddler” courts at three sites.

Redistricting special session likely to boost Democrats

ATLANTA – Georgia Democrats scored minimal gains in the General Assembly in last year’s elections – and even lost one congressional seat – despite population growth during the last decade among Blacks, who tend to vote for Democrats.

But Democratic prospects likely will look a lot better after lawmakers gather under the Gold Dome for a special session starting Wednesday and redraw the state’s legislative and congressional lines on the orders of a federal judge appointed by then-President Barack Obama.

“(Republican incumbents are) either going to end up in districts highly likely to elect a Democrat or in a district with another Republican incumbent,” said Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia who has written extensively about redistricting. “They will have to decide which Republicans are going to walk the plank.”

The General Assembly’s Republican majorities drew the current maps two years ago in a redistricting exercise legislatures around the country go through every decade following the decennial U.S. Census to account for changes in population that occurred during the previous 10 years.

Almost immediately, civil rights and voting rights groups sued the state, claiming the new district boundaries ignored strong population growth among minorities in Georgia since 2010 and an actual decline in the state’s white population.

“All of Georgia’s population growth in the last decade was attributable to people of color,” said Rahul Garabadu, senior voting rights staff director at the Georgia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

“Georgia could have and – importantly – should have drawn additional Black majority state House and state Senate districts. Not drawing these additional Black majority districts diluted the power of Black voting strength and violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.”

U.S. District Judge Steve Jones agreed in a ruling last month that ordered the legislature to redraw the 2021 congressional and legislative maps. The lengthy 516-page ruling specifically instructed lawmakers to add one Black majority congressional district, two more Black majority Georgia Senate districts, and five additional state House seats.

“This is a huge win for Black voters in Georgia and for all Georgians who want a level political playing field and progress from the past,” said Ari Savitzky, a lawyer with the national ACLU Voting Rights Project.

The state has appealed Jones’ ruling, but – importantly – did not seek a stay in the order. As a result, the new maps lawmakers draw during the special session will be in use at least during the 2024 elections while the appeal winds its way through the courts.

While majority Republicans lost two state House seats and one state Senate seat in last year’s elections, the congressional map lawmakers drew in 2021 snared one additional GOP seat in Georgia’s U.S. House delegation.

Republicans went from an 8-6 edge to a 9-5 margin by extending Democratic U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath’s 6th Congressional District in Atlanta’s northern suburbs further north through heavily Republican Forsyth and Dawson counties and a portion of Cherokee County.

That allowed the GOP’s Rich McCormick, who had lost a 2020 a bid for Congress in Gwinnett County to incumbent Democratic Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux, to shift his focus to the redrawn 6th District seat last year and win that seat. McBath responded to being drawn an unfriendly district by running against Bourdeaux in the 7th District Democratic primary and capturing the Gwinnett-based seat.

While Jones ruled that five of Georgia’s congressional district maps violate the Voting Rights Act, the action during the upcoming special session is expected to focus on McCormick’s 6th District or the 11th Congressional District centered in portions of Cobb and Cherokee counties represented by GOP Rep. Barry Loudermilk.

Of the two, McCormick is the more likely target, said Kerwin Swint, a political science professor at Kennesaw State University. While McCormick is a freshman in the House, Loudermilk has served in Congress since 2015 and before that was a member of the General Assembly.

“Loudermilk’s been around awhile,” Swint said. “He’s bult a base of support.”

Jones was more specific in the portion of last month’s ruling pertaining to legislative seats. The judge ordered the legislature to draw two additional Black majority Georgia Senate seats in the southern portion of metro Atlanta and five more Black majority state House seats – two in the south metro, one in the western portion of the metro region, and two in the Macon area.

Swint said the most vulnerable legislative Republican incumbents in the upcoming redistricting session will be those serving in the areas Jones singled out for new Black majority districts.

But with Republicans currently holding solid majorities in both legislative chambers, there’s little likelihood the new Black majority districts will be enough to give Democrats control of either the House or Senate in the immediate future, he said.

“They think they can get close … by ’28 or so to be in a position to take it then,” Swint said.

The special session isn’t expected to take long. For one thing, Jones’ order gives lawmakers only until Dec. 8 to draw the new congressional and legislative maps.

Bullock said another factor that could allow this round of redistricting to go smoothly is that lawmakers only will be focusing on those parts of the state the judge pointed to in his ruling.

“If you’re in South Georgia, you won’t have to worry about any of these changes,” he said. “It won’t be a complete redraw.”

Georgia Supreme Court blocks Republican-backed prosecutors oversight board

ATLANTA – The Georgia Supreme Court Wednesday halted attempts to move forward with a new oversight board for local prosecutors the General Assembly’s Republican majorities created this year.

In a six-page ruling, the justices declined to review rules and regulations for the Professional Attorneys Qualifications Commission as required by Senate Bill 92, which lawmakers passed along party lines in March and GOP Gov. Brian Kemp signed in May.

“We have grave doubts that adopting the standards and rules would be within our constitutional power,” the court wrote. “Accordingly, we respectfully decline to take any action regarding the commission’s draft standards of conduct and rules for the commission’s governance.”

The legislature created the oversight commission to investigate complaints lodged against local prosecutors and potentially discipline or remove the target of a complaint on a variety of grounds including mental or physical incapacity, willful misconduct or failure to perform the duties of the office, conviction of a crime of moral turpitude, or conduct that brings the office into disrepute.

Republican legislators pushed the measure as a way to sanction prosecutors in Georgia cities led by Democrats who they said were reluctant to prosecute certain crimes, notably during the civil unrest that followed the murder of George Floyd, a Black man, in Minneapolis by a white police officer in 2020.

Legislative Democrats countered that the bill would let an unelected commission usurp the will of local voters in elections of district attorneys.

There was no immediate response from Republicans to Wednesday’s ruling, which came on the afternoon before a long holiday weekend. But GOP legislative leaders could get around the decision by amending the law during this winter’s General Assembly session to remove the provision requiring the Georgia Supreme Court to review the commission’s rules.

Meanwhile, a lawsuit challenging the law filed in Fulton County Superior County in August by three Democratic district attorneys and one Republican D.A. remains pending.

Warnock tours proposed national park site at Ocmulgee Mounds

Ocmulgee Mounds

ATLANTA – Legislation will be introduced soon in Congress to create Georgia’s first national park, U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock said this week after touring the Ocmulgee Mounds in Macon, a prehistoric Native American site.

Ocmulgee Mounds was established as a national historical park during the 1930s to preserve an area occupied by various native cultures for thousands of years. The mounds were built during the Mississippi Period, which began around 900.

“Ocmulgee is not just an expanse of land,” Warnock said. “It is a living testament to our intertwined histories, and a source of economic and cultural vitality.”

Warnock’s tour came less than a week after the National Park Service sent a study to Congress concluding that the Muscogee Creek Nation’s historic homeland in Middle Georgia warrants protection. But the study also declared the area contemplated for a park, stretching for more than 50 miles, includes so much private property it wouldn’t be possible to acquire.

To get around that problem, the report recommended reducing the area to be preserved along the Ocmulgee River.

Warnock is working with Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., and U.S. Reps. Austin Scott, R-Tifton, and Sanford Bishop, D-Albany, to craft legislation designating the Ocmulgee Mounds as a national park.

This week’s tour of the site was led by Tracie Revis, a citizen of the Muscogee Creek Nation.