Alabama lawmakers will have yet another monumental task to accomplish when they meet for their annual session beginning Feb. 7: senators and representatives will have to redraw at least 12 state legislative districts before the next election cycle following a federal court ruling that their creation was unconstitutionally motivated by race.
Last week a federal three-judge panel issued an opinion outlining why a dozen of the state’s legislative districts — drawn by State House politicos following the 2010 census — improperly use race, instead of permissible factors like political affiliation, as a reason for particular mapping decisions.
The decision came as a mixed victory for the plaintiffs, a group of black lawmakers and a group of black activists who argued that the Alabama lawmakers relied heavily on race in drawing the maps, inappropriately “packing” minority voters into the same districts and thereby lessening their electoral clout. The opinion, which came only after a United States Supreme Court opinion asking the lower court to more closely scrutinize Alabama’s motives, found only about a third of the districts challenged are unlawful, something Attorney General Luther Strange applauded in his statement reacting to the recent decision.
“We are pleased that the court upheld the constitutionality of two-thirds of the state legislative districts under challenge,” Strange said in a statement. “We will determine the next steps in consultation with the legislative leadership and the governor.”
One of the districts ruled unconstitutional was House District 99, which is represented by James Buskey and includes much of north Mobile. The three-judge panel, which included 11th Circuit Court Judge Bill Pryor — who is on Trump’s short list for the Supreme Court — found that changes to Buskey’s Mobile district, including the splitting of precincts, couldn’t be adequately defended by Alabama in court.
“Three split precincts — Semmes First Baptist, University City Church of Christ and Little Welcome Baptist Church — exhibit clear patterns of racial sorting, and Alabama offers no explanation for these patterns,” the lengthy opinion says. “These three precinct splits place a significant number of black people in District 99 on the basis of race … We find that race predominated in the design of House District 99. We further conclude that District 99 does not survive strict scrutiny. Because the state has not provided a strong basis in evidence for its use of race, we must enjoin the use of District 99 in future elections.”
The redrawing of House District 99 and the other 11 in question will likely lead to changes in other districts — a significant shifting of the current election map, something pointed out by James Blacksher, an attorney for the plaintiffs.
“The ripple effect will require redrawing most, if not all, of the state districts in both the Senate and House,” Blacksher said.
Sen. Gerald Dial, a veteran Republican who helped craft the original map, said he thinks lawmakers should be able to address the court’s issues with the 12 districts primarily by sitting down with those senators and representatives affected by the ruling.
“I think what we will do will get the affected individuals in a room … and have a one-on-one look at what we’ve got to do to meet requirements of the court,” Dial said. “We won’t be adverse to any of those individuals.”
According to the ruling, a new legislative map meeting minimum legal standards must be approved by the Legislature before the 2018 primary and general election cycle begin.