State lawmakers are claiming victory in a federal court case seeking to redraw Alabama’s congressional districts. On March 27, U.S. District Court Judge Karon Owen Bowdre struck down many of the substantive complaints in the lawsuit, which was filed on behalf of eight African American voters around the state.
“I am pleased that U.S. District Judge Bowdre agreed with the Attorney General’s argument that the plaintiffs in the voting rights lawsuit against the state of Alabama’s congressional districting plan waited too long to file their legal challenge,” Attorney General Steve Marshall said in a statement. “Any attempt by the plaintiffs to alter Alabama’s congressional map, should they ultimately prevail in their lawsuit, would not occur until after the upcoming 2020 congressional elections. The bottom line is the upcoming 2020 congressional elections in Alabama will not be affected by the lawsuit as it progresses in court.”
As Lagniappe previously reported, the plaintiffs sued Secretary of State John Merrill last year over the claim the current congressional map, passed as SB 484 by the state Legislature in 2011, “packs” black voters into one district (District 7) and dilutes minority voting power in the others.
Plaintiffs were asking the court to agree the current map violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act and to prevent the state from conducting more elections under that law, including the 2020 presidential and congressional primaries next March.
Merrill sought dismissal of the case in January, arguing the court had no jurisdiction and the case should be decided by a three-judge panel. That motion was denied. But this week Judge Bowdre sought to answer two remaining arguments: “First, Plaintiffs failed to demonstrate the existence of a proper remedy; and second, Plaintiffs’ claims are barred by the doctrine of laches.”
Bowdre found the complaint did in fact have legal standing, but also granted part of Merrill’s motion to dismiss based on the doctrine of laches. Essentially, the court determined that due to the 10-year cycle of the U.S. Census and resulting redistricting, the plaintiffs waited too long after the state’s 2011 redistricting plan was approved, thereby exposing the defendant to prejudice.
“The court finds that to force the state of Alabama to redistrict twice in two years — once based on nine-year-old census data — would result in prejudice. This prejudice was caused by plaintiffs’ inexcusable delay in waiting until 2018 to file suit. So, the doctrine of laches bars plaintiffs’ claim to the extent plaintiffs seek injunctive relief.”
The order preserved the plaintiff’s rights to declaratory relief, meaning they can still win the case on the merits of the arguments, but it would be decided without imposing any remedies.
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