Rob McDuff, a civil rights attorney, and Reilly Morse, president of the Mississippi Center for Justice announced a new lawsuit over voting rights in this 2017 photo.

A federal appeals court has given state lawmakers four weeks to redraw a state Senate district after a lower court determined the district violates the federal Voting Rights Act.

U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves

Gov. Phil Bryant and Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann had asked the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans to stay last month’s decision by U.S. District Court Judge Carlton Reeves until the Fifth Circuit heard their appeal. The appeals court instead ordered the Mississippi Legislature to redraw the map by April 3.

But the Fifth Circuit denied the request for a stay, writing that a majority of the three-judge panel had “concluded that there is not a strong likelihood that Defendants will succeed in overturning the liability finding on appeal.”

In February, Reeves had determined that Senate District 22 as drawn diluted the power of the black vote in that area of the state, writing that the district “does not afford the plaintiffs ‘an equal opportunity to participate in the political processes and to elect candidates of their choice.'” The Fifth Circuit also extended the filing deadline for candidates vying for a senate seat in 2019 in those districts to April 12.

“The Court of Appeals quite properly confirmed Judge Reeves ruling that lines of District 22 should be changed for this year’s election,” said Rob McDuff, an attorney for the plaintiffs, in a statement. “That configuration added wealthy majority-white suburbs in Madison County to an otherwise largely African-American rural district in the Delta to dilute African-American voting strength in violation of the Voting Rights Act.”

The defendants are Gov. Phil Bryant, Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, and Attorney General Jim Hood.

State Senate District 22 currently covers six counties in the Delta and central Mississippi. The district is irregularly-shaped, with a wide center and two narrow arms, one that reaches north past Cleveland and another that reaches into Madison County, ending at the Barnett Reservoir. The distance between the two points is approximately 102 miles. Mississippi, which has 52 senate districts, is approximately 320 miles top to bottom.

The lawsuit, filed in June, alleges that state officers elongated the district, adding Madison County’s wealthy and largely white neighborhoods, to limit the district’s black voting age population to 50.8 percent. They argue that this, combined with white bloc voting and lower African American turnout, has consistently diluted the voting strength of one of the most African American parts of the state.

Sen. Buck Clark, R-Hollandale, has held that senate seat since 2004. He is running for state treasurer in 2019.

The plaintiffs, Joseph Thomas of Yazoo County, Vernon Ayers of Washington County, and Melvin Lawson of Bolivar County, all live in District 22. All but one of the six counties in District 22, Madison County, lies in the Mississippi Delta and is predominantly African American.

“Gerrymandering stands as one of the greatest threats to democracy today. The current districting plan in Mississippi’s state Senate effectively denies African American voters an equal opportunity to participate in the political process,” said Kristen Clarke, President and Executive Director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

The Fifth Circuit agreed with Reeves, giving the Legislature first crack at redrawing the district. But whatever plan they come up with is likely to have repercussions across neighboring districts.

In his February ruling, Reeves noted that the plaintiffs had already suggested three alternate plans that comply. Two of those plans would affect only Districts 22 and 23. A third plan would affect Districts 22, 23, and 13. Those seats are held by Clark, Sen. Briggs Hopson, R-Vicksburg, and Sen. Willie Simmons, D-Cleveland, respectively. Simmons is also not seeking reelection in 2019, running instead for transportation commissioner in Mississippi’s central district.

Seven candidates have qualified to run in Senate District 22, as it is currently drawn.  Joseph C. Thomas, Ruffin Smith, Vince “Bigg” V Roberts, Colton Thornton, and Earl Scales all qualified as Democrats by the original March 1 deadline. Hayes Dent and Dwayne Self qualified as Republican candidates.

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Larrison Campbell is a Greenville native who reports on politics with an emphasis on public health. She received a bachelor’s from Wesleyan University and a master’s from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.Larrison is a 2018 National Press Foundation fellow in public health, a 2019 Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation of Massachusetts fellow in health care reporting and a 2019 Center for Health Journalism National Fellow.