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Mississippi officials say redistricting lawsuit too late

January 16, 2019

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi officials argued to a federal judge Wednesday that challengers waited too long to file a lawsuit that alleges a legislative district provides too little opportunity for an African-American candidate to win.

“The issues could have been addressed, could have been dealt with, long before the eve of the election,” lawyer Charles Griffin told U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves.

The arguments came in a case involving Mississippi Senate District 22, which has been represented since 2004 by Republican Sen. Buck Clarke of Hollandale, who is white.

The voting-age population in the district was just more than 50 percent black in 2010 and three black plaintiffs, including a Democrat who lost to Clarke in 2015, say it could be redrawn to increase the chance of a victory for an African-American candidate. Griffin initially said the three-year statute of limitations began when the Department of Justice signed off on the plan in September 2012.

“Our position is they had all the information available to them, at the time the House and Senate approved it and the Department of Justice approved it,” he said. “The numbers have not changed.”

Griffin later alternately suggested that the statute of limitations could have begun on March 1, 2015, the end of qualifying for the first set of elections held under the 2012 map. Plaintiffs’ lawyer Robert McDuff, though, argued that the limit, if there was one, didn’t begin until after the November 2015 election. The suit was filed in July 2018.

“That election provided the most important evidence of racial vote dilution in the case,” McDuff told Reeves.

He also said that because the plaintiffs sued last summer, it’s unfair to characterize their challenge as a last-minute move.

The district is more than 100 miles (161 kilometers) long, stretching through parts of six counties from the Delta into affluent Jackson suburbs of Madison County. The plaintiffs propose moving the Madison County precincts as well as some Yazoo County precincts into District 23, now represented by Republican Briggs Hopson of Vicksburg. In exchange, they would take Issaquena County, some other Yazoo County precincts and some Warren County precincts into District 22.

The changes would raise the black voting-age population in the district from 50.7 percent to 62 percent, based on 2010 Census figures, plaintiff’s expert Bill Cooper has written in court papers.

Reeves didn’t rule, although he made some comments in questioning Griffin that appeared sympathetic to the plaintiffs.

“Maybe that election proved to us now that those first lines were not appropriate,” Reeves said at one point.

If Reeves does not dismiss the case, it’s scheduled for trial in February. If he were to rule for the plaintiffs, he could have to order a new qualifying period, since qualifying has already begun, with a deadline of March 1. Griffin said that was another reason the judge should reject a change, although Reeves noted new qualifying periods had been ordered in past Mississippi redistricting cases.

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An earlier version of this story has been corrected to show the number of the state senate district in question is District 22, not District 21.

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Follow Jeff Amy at http://twitter.com/jeffamy .

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