The Georgia Supreme Court agrees that someone needs to issue a legally final ruling on whether county commissioners can override state legislators and draw their own electoral districts.

But the nine justices on Thursday also agreed it would be improper to rule on that question in a lawsuit brought by two Cobb County residents, reversing a lower court judgment that had thrown out the county commissioners' own map.

The ruling that Catherine and David Floam weren't qualified to get a declaratory judgment means that, for now, residents in Georgia's third-largest county will elect two county commissioners in districts mapped by the Democratic-majority Cobb County Commission, and not under the earlier map drawn by the Republican-majority legislature. Voting is underway in advance of May 21 primaries.

"To be clear, the fact that there are two competing maps does create significant uncertainty for many," Justice Nels Peterson wrote for a unanimous court in explaining why the couple didn't qualify for declaratory judgment. "But the Floams have not shown that this uncertainty affects their future conduct. They have not established that they are insecure about some future action they plan to take."

The dispute goes back to Republican lawmakers' decision to draw election district lines for multiple county commissions and school boards that were opposed by Democratic lawmakers representing Democratic-majority counties.

In most states, local governments are responsible for redrawing their own district lines once every 10 years, to adjust for population changes after U.S. Census results are released. But in Georgia, while local governments may propose maps, local lawmakers traditionally have to sign off.

If Cobb County wins the power to draw its own districts, many other counties could follow. In 2022, Republicans used their majorities to override the wishes of local Democratic lawmakers to draw districts in not only Cobb, but in Fulton, Gwinnett, Augusta-Richmond and Athens-Clarke counties. Democrats decried the moves as a hostile takeover of local government.

But the Cobb County Commission followed up by asserting that under the county government's constitutional home rule rights, counties could draw their own maps. After Cobb County Superior Court Judge Ann Harris ruled the move unconstitutional in January, the ruling was stayed pending appeal. That led to candidates trying to qualify under both sets of maps, with elections officials ultimately deciding the county-drawn map was still in effect.

Ray Smith, the lawyer who represented the Floams, said he thought his candidates did qualify for declaratory judgment.

"I think it's going to lead to more chaos," Smith said, although he predicted that eventually someone who qualified would bring a case to the Supreme Court and it would overturn the commission's action. Another lawsuit is pending from Alicia Adams, a Republican who tried to qualify as a commission candidate under the legislative map lines but was rejected because she lived outside the commission-drawn district.

"Cobb County should not be out celebrating," Smith said. "They should be concerned that they have problems and they're going to have problems until they resolve this."
Indeed, in a concurring opinion, Justice Charlie Bethel seemed to implore commissioners themselves to seek a court judgment, warning that if the commission ultimately loses, commissioners could be thrown off the board.

"A delayed loss by Cobb could give rise to calamitous consequences inflicting serious expense and practical hardship on its citizens," Bethel wrote. "Accordingly, I urge Cobb to act with all dispatch in obtaining a final answer on the legal merits of its chosen path."

But Ross Cavitt, a county spokesperson, indicated it's unlikely the county will take action.

"The county attorney's office does not believe there is a proper action to file," Cavitt wrote in an email.