A pair of Georgia Supreme Court orders jostle pre-runoff landscape

A pair of one-page orders by the Georgia Supreme Court jostled the political landscape days before the Dec. 6 runoff between Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock and Republican Herschel Walker.

The rulings issued Wednesday reject a Republican attempt to ban Saturday voting and temporarily reinstate abortion restrictions that were blocked last week by a Fulton County judge’s decision.

Taken together, they represent two of the core issues — reproductive rights and ballot access — that many Georgia voters say helped shape their decisions in a midterm election that ended with clear Republican victories in every statewide race except the U.S. Senate contest.

Warnock has vowed to preserve abortion rights and pressed for federal expansions of voter protections, while Walker has called for a total ban on abortions and backed the legal challenge that sought to ban Saturday voting in the runoff.

It’s impossible to pinpoint how the rulings could influence a high-stakes runoff. A Walker victory would put Republicans on the cusp of flipping the Senate, while Warnock’s win would provide Democrats a 51st seat in the chamber, giving them more leverage to enact their policies.

But analysts from both sides of the aisle expect the decisions to refocus the spotlight on policy debates that have helped shape the campaign. Fred Hicks, a veteran Democratic strategist, predicted Tuesday that when the rulings were issued, it “very well might be the day when the runoff was decided” for Warnock.

“The GOP’s decision to fight Saturday voting gave life to the concerns of Black voters that Republicans want to suppress their vote,” Hicks said, while the abortion ruling puts the issue “right back at the top of mind” as early voting starts.

Credit: Greg Nash/The Hill

Credit: Greg Nash/The Hill

Anti-abortion advocates say the timing of the ruling is beneficial, too. Cole Muzio of the conservative Frontline Policy Council said it reminds every Republican who supports abortion limits that “lives are at stake with their vote.”

“Today’s ruling is a reminder of all we’ve won, all that is still at risk, what matters most and the significance of what we do in this runoff,” he said, adding that it was a “huge boost” for Walker at a pivotal moment in the campaign.

Closing message?

The abortion ruling came about a week after Fulton County Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney blocked enforcement of the state’s 2019 anti-abortion law, which bans the procedure in most cases as early as six weeks into a pregnancy.

The judge ruled the law was void because the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe. v. Wade decision that granted a constitutional right to abortions was in effect when legislators approved the state restrictions.

State officials soon appealed the ruling, and an order signed by seven of the state’s nine justices temporarily reinstated the law while the court reviews the lower judge’s ruling. The two exceptions were Justices Nels Peterson, who was disqualified, and Andrew Pinson, who didn’t participate.

Credit: Mike Stewart

Credit: Mike Stewart

The decision on Saturday voting had more circuitous origins.

The legal battle began after Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said early voting couldn’t be held on Nov. 26 because it’s forbidden by state law if there’s a holiday on the Thursday or Friday preceding it. Thursday is Thanksgiving, and Friday is a state holiday once celebrated as Robert E. Lee’s birthday.

Warnock’s campaign challenged the law, and a judge ruled last week that the ban on Saturday voting after a holiday didn’t apply to runoffs. After the state Court of Appeals denied a challenge, Raffensperger dropped his case.

But the Georgia GOP, the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the Republican National Committee then waded into the fight to the chagrin of some state officials, framing Saturday voting as an “illegal” practice that helped Democratic-leaning counties.

At least 22 counties plan to allow Saturday voting. Many of them are densely populated areas where Democrats dominate, but several are GOP-friendly rural or exurban territories where Walker won by big margins.

State Democrats noted in a Wednesday response that those counties account for more than 4 million Georgians — including heavily Republican areas — and that the last-minute attempt to ban Saturday voting “threatens to create confusion.”

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

The state Supreme Court’s order, which unanimously rejected the GOP challenge, prompted groans among some senior Republicans who were baffled by the appeal.

Several pointed to the reaction of conservative commentator Erick Erickson, who said it was a “stupid move for the GOP to fight this.”

Some see the orders as an inadvertent closing message for Democrats.

Anthony Kreis, a Georgia State University constitutional law professor, said they center attention on a “powerful narrative that Democrats have been hammering home with some success against Republicans: that they are an imminent threat to democracy and the bodily autonomy of women.”