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Fight over district’s racial makeup back at appeals court

June 11, 2019

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Mississippi officials asked a federal appeals court Tuesday to overturn a district court ruling that said boundary lines for a state Senate district illegally diluted vote African American voting strength.

Mississippi’s Legislature redrew the lines for Senate District 22 in March after the district judge issued his ruling and a 5th U.S. Circuit court of Appeals panel in New Orleans refused to block it pending appeals.

Another 5th Circuit panel heard the appeal Tuesday morning and it was unclear when the panel would rule. Gov. Phil Bryant and Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann had asked in a May letter that the court immediately overturn the district judge and re-instate the original lines. They said an immediate ruling would provide time to reopen qualifying for the Aug. 6 election. However, there was no indication during the hearing that the panel would rule quickly.

Plaintiffs in the voting rights lawsuit at issue said there was no need to change the lines again ahead of this year’s election. They noted that the plan adopted by the Legislature this year to satisfy the judge’s ruling will likely only be used once. The U.S. Census takes place next year and will be followed by redrawing of district lines to account for population shifts.

District 22 stretches from mostly black and poor parts of the rural Delta into mostly white and affluent suburbs outside Jackson. Court documents show the district had a nearly 51% black voting age population — barely enough to be declared a majority black district, according to the plaintiffs — and a white Republican senator, Eugene “Buck” Clarke of Hollandale, who is not seeking re-election.

Attorneys for the Mississippi Center for Justice and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, representing the plaintiffs, said that because of Mississippi’s history of racial discrimination, state Senate District 22 lacked a large enough black majority to give African American residents a realistic chance to elect a candidate of their choice.

U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves ruled in February that the district dilutes black voting power and ordered lawmakers to redraw it. After a divided 5th Circuit panel refused to block the order pending appeal results in March, legislators redrew the contested district. Their plan gives District 22 a 58% black voting age population by swapping some Delta precincts with the adjoining District 13, whose black voting age population will drop from 69% to 62%.

State attorneys argue that the plaintiffs waited too late to sue. The suit was filed in mid-2018, six years after the district was cleared by the U.S. Justice Department and three years after the 2015 election in which a black challenger lost. The state also argues that under federal law, a three-judge panel should have heard the case, not a single district judge.

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