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Court Upholds Milwaukee Voting

January 20, 1998

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Rebuffing an appeal by the NAACP, the Supreme Court today left intact the at-large system used to elect judges in Milwaukee County, Wis.

The court, without comment, turned down an NAACP branch’s argument that the system violates the federal Voting Rights Act by making it too difficult for black candidates to win.

A federal appeals court upheld the system, saying the voting rights law did not override Wisconsin’s ``sincerely held″ belief that electing judges in countywide elections will help keep them impartial.

County judges in Wisconsin have been elected on an at-large basis since the state was admitted to the union in 1848.

The Milwaukee branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and several black voters sued in 1994, saying at-large voting in that county violated the Voting Rights Act by making it difficult for black voters to elect their preferred candidates.

Blacks make up one-fifth of the county population. But the lawsuit said only three of the 46 county judges were black, and that none of the four appellate judges elected from Milwaukee County were black.

During the last 25 years, only two black judicial candidates won contested elections, and both were previously appointed incumbents.

The NAACP sought an order requiring the county to replace the at-large voting system with smaller districts drawn so some would have a majority of black voters.

A federal judge ruled against the NAACP, saying it had not proved that white voters consistently voted against black candidates.

The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, saying the Voting Rights Act does not override a state’s ``sincerely held″ belief that using large election districts helps keep judges impartial.

In the appeal acted on today, the NAACP’s lawyers said the 7th Circuit court’s ruling in effect requires proof that an at-large voting system is intended to harm minorities’ chances at the polls. The Voting Rights Act requires no such proof of intent in such cases, they said.

Lawyers for the state said that creating a ``system of black and white judicial branches″ would not improve fairness in the court system.

The case is Milwaukee Branch of the NAACP vs. Thompson, 97-753.

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