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Court Sends Back Alabama Democratic Dispute

March 25, 1991

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Supreme Court today sent back to a special federal court in Alabama a dispute over how the state’s Democrats select the members of their state party’s governing body.

The justices set aside a three-judge federal court’s ruling that said proposed changes in the selection method must be pre-cleared by the federal government.

The high court said the three-judge court should dismiss the case as moot, or no longer legally relevant.

Lawyers for Alabama’s State Democratic Executive Committee said applying the federal Voting Rights Act’s pre-clearance requirement to the changes at issue violates the constitutionally protected freedoms of speech and association.

The three-judge court’s ruling was issued last August. Last October, Attorney General Dick Thornburgh pre-cleared a plan under which 210 committee members (105 men and 105 women) are elected from the state’s 105 legislative districts and 15 blacks are appointed by blacks who were elected.

Just what practical effect the August ruling or Thornburgh’s approval would have had is unclear. The next round of selections for committee members is not scheduled until 1994, and there are indications Democratic Party leaders plan to propose additional changes.

Still pending before U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson in Montgomery is a lawsuit in which the SDEC’s make-up is being attacked under the substantive provisions of the Voting Rights Act. A trial already has been held in that case.

The case acted on today began with a 1989 lawsuit filed by Thomas Hawthorne and Emory Newman, who contended that a proposed change in the SDEC selections would unlawfully dilute blacks’ voting power.

The selection process had included the election of 210 committee members and the additional appointments of 23 blacks.

The party proposed changing the appointments to reflect black participation in the party primary - a move Birmingham lawyer Edward Still said in a recent interview would have reduced the number of blacks on the committee.

The proposed change was modified shortly before the three-judge court considered the case. The modified plan was the one pre-cleared by Thornburgh.

In the appeal acted on today, lawyers for the committee said the Voting Rights Act should not reach the proposed changes because they do not affect the right to vote.

″The black Democrats who hold appointed affirmative action seats on the SDEC are not now, nor have they ever been, elected in primaries,″ the appeal said. ″Instead, they are internally appointed in a supplemental fashion after the election of the SDEC in the Democratic primary.″

The appeal added that the pre-clearance requirement improperly ″places a heavy burden on the party’s First Amendment rights of speech and association.″

The case is State Democratic Executive Committee of Alabama vs. Hawthorne, 90-1244.

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