BY DALE LIESCH AND GABRIEL TYNES
A lawsuit quietly filed last summer in U.S. District Court in Birmingham seeks to create another minority-majority congressional district by splitting the First Congressional District, which includes Mobile and Baldwin counties.
The plaintiffs are suing Secretary of State John Merrill over the claim the current congressional map, passed as S.B. 484 by the state Legislature in 2011, “packs” black voters into one district (District 7) and dilutes minority voting power in the others. Plaintiffs are asking the court to agree the current map violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act and to prevent the state from conducting anymore elections under that law, including the 2020 presidential and congressional primaries scheduled in March.
The suit is filed on behalf of eight black voters throughout the state, including LaKeisha Chestnut of Mobile County. Also named are a plaintiff in District 2, one in District 3 and five in District 7.
“Chestnut, who votes Democratic, was given no opportunity to elect her candidate of choice because the Republican candidate was unopposed,” the suit reads. “An additional majority-minority district could be drawn incorporating all or some of Mobile County to provide a remedy for the existing section 2 violation.”
During 2011, the lawsuit argues, the one majority-minority district in the state increased from about 58 percent minority to over 60 percent.
“S.B. 484 moved African-Americans from majority-white districts into [District 7], heavily concentrating African-Americans in the district and diluting their influence in adjacent districts,” the suit reads. “S.B. 484 ‘packs’ African-American voters into [District 7] and ‘cracks’ African-American population centers among other districts, preventing the emergence of a second congressional district in which minorities would have an opportunity to elect their candidates of choice.”
By “unpacking” black voters in District 7 and combining them with black voters in Districts 1, 2 and 3, the suit argues, the state could draw a second majority-minority district. Each of those three districts where the black voting population is “cracked” contain areas of significant minority population, according to the suit. For instance, District 3 contains Macon County, with a black population of 82 percent. District 1 contains Mobile County and Monroe County, which have black populations of 34 percent and 41 percent, respectively.
In his answer to the complaint, Merrill said the lawsuit “reads like a 32-page, 109-paragraph press release.”
Citing the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Shelby County v. Eric Holder decision that rolled back certain provisions of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, Merrill notes “Beginning with the 1870s, Plaintiffs recount long-ago racial sins by people who were dead long before passage of the challenged 2011 law, even though the Supreme Court has ruled that Alabama cannot forever be condemned for historic acts.”
Merrill goes on to deny most of the claims in the complaint, adding it doesn’t make sense he’s the sole defendant because his office has no authority to change the congressional districts.
Late last year, Merrill argued the court didn’t have jurisdiction over the case, seeking instead a decision by a panel of three judges. But after a hearing on the pleadings in January, Chief U.S. District Judge Karon Owen Bowdre ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, who argued the complaint was neither based on constitutional grounds nor reapportionment. Rather, it is simply a question of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which can be decided by a single judge.
In a separate order dated Feb. 14, Bowdre — a George W. Bush appointee — denied Merrill’s motion to expedite discovery in the case, but noted the plaintiffs had planned to produce alternate congressional maps by March 8. According to plaintiffs’ attorney Richard Rouco of Birmingham, those maps have been drawn by expert witnesses and shared with the defendants, but not yet filed into court record.
“This case is on a pretty quick schedule,” he said, adding maps will likely be submitted to the court within a couple of months. Rouco further said they anticipate a bench trial by September or October.
“These cases are complicated but not [difficult] to litigate,” Rouco said. “They are driven by expert reports and legal arguments over what Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act requires [the state] to do.”
Rouco said there will likely be no other witnesses on the stand and the plaintiffs themselves may not be required to testify.
Lagniappe has obtained the plaintiffs’ redrawn congressional maps. Three of the four examples of redrawn districts (pictured) take the city of Mobile out of the First District and add it to a majority-black Second District. All four illustrative plans leave Baldwin County and parts of Mobile County in the First District, but also move the district eastward into the Southeast corner of Alabama.
Republican State Rep. Chris Pringle, of Mobile, who has seen the maps as the House co-chair of the reapportionment committee, called them “ugly,” adding that they wouldn’t work because they’re based on outdated census information.
“It’s a problem,” he said. “They want to use the 2010 census information, but it doesn’t take into account growth in Baldwin and Mobile counties.”
To further complicate the issue, Pringle said the state is expected to lose a congressional seat when the maps are redrawn in 2022 using information from the 2020 census. He said the population in each remaining district would increase from 621,000 to 825,000.
“You can’t draw two minority-majority districts when you have six districts,” he said. “It’s very difficult to draw a second district.”
U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne, who currently represents the state’s First District, said in a statement he and his staff have reviewed the lawsuit and “believe it has no merit.” Byrne has recently announced a run for Doug Jones’ U.S. Senate seat.
“We understand a trial is likely this fall, but an actual decision is unlikely before qualifying ends in early November, which carries the potential for chaos and confusion as we head toward party primaries [March 3],” Byrne wrote in a statement. “Moreover, I strongly oppose any plan which would split off any part of Mobile or Baldwin Counties and assign it to a district centered away from the Gulf Coast region. We have seen great success with the teamwork among public officials at all levels down here, particularly in economic development, and any split would weaken that effort.”
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