Gerrymandering lawsuit over Senate District 22 headed back to court as governor challenges order to redraw map

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Oral arguments have been scheduled for the week of June 10 by a three judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in the lawsuit over whether the 102-mile Mississippi Senate District 22 should be redrawn to strengthen black voting power before elections later this year.

Mississippi Senate District 22

The oral arguments were scheduled after Gov. Phil Bryant and Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann appealed a ruling by U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves of the Southern District of Mississippi and affirmed by a three judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals saying District 22 should be redrawn.

Bryant and Hosemann are asking the full 5th Circuit to hear the case. The oral arguments will be before another three judge panel. Whether the full court of appeals could or would take the case before the scheduled oral arguments is not clear.

Hosemann and Bryant argue that the District 22 lawsuit, which was brought in 2018, was filed too late.

“There is no question that if the suit had been brought in 2015 when all the facts necessary to plaintiffs were known, orderly review and orderly deliberation could have taken place,” they argue in court filings.

The only election under the current legislative redistricting plan, which was approved by the Legislature in 2012, took place in 2015. The second election will take place later this year and then the Legislature will be mandated by federal law to redistrict again, based on the 2020 U.S. Census, before the 2023 elections.

In 2015 in Senate District 22, incumbent Sen. Eugene “Buck” Clarke, R-Hollandale, defeated Democrat Joseph Thomas of Yazoo County 54 percent to 46 percent.

The current configuration of the district, spanning parts of six counties, was drawn in the 2012 legislative session. In 2012, newly elected Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and his redistricting team faced a dilemma in how to protect his newly named Appropriations chair – Buck Clarke.

Adam Ganucheau, Mississippi Today

Senate Appropriations Committee chair Buck Clarke, R-Hollandale.

In redistricting, the Senate had to find additional people to place in Clarke’s Delta-centrist District 22 to adhere to population shifts found by the 2010 Census.

The only problem was that the district was surrounded primarily by African Americans who normally vote Democratic.

In an effort to protect Clarke, the Senate opted to steer the already expansive district south into fast growing, affluent Madison County. The result was a district that was more than 100 miles long and ran from Bolivar County in the heart of the Delta into Madison, a heavily Republican Jackson suburb.

While Clarke won re-election in the district in 2015, he is now running statewide for treasurer.

In the meantime adhering to the federal court order, during the final days of the 2019 session, the Legislature added African American voters in Sunflower County to District 22 and removed primarily white voting precincts in Bolivar County from the district and placed them in District 13. The result, according to the people who filed the lawsuit, was that African Americans had chances to maintain a black senator in District 13 and add one in District 22.

But now because of the appeal by Bryant and Hosemann the 10 candidates (six Democrats, two Republicans and two independent) who have qualified to run for the District 22 post this year are waiting to determine if they will be campaigning in the district as it was drawn before or after the Legislature’s action during the 2019 session. The same issues face the seven candidates (six Democrats and one Republican) in District 13.

The party primary elections will be in August followed by the general election in November.

There are currently 15 African American majority districts in the 52 member Senate, including District 22. The district under its current configuration has a black voting age population of just over 50 percent, based on 2010 Census numbers.

The Mississippi Center for Justice, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of some residents of District 22,  including Thomas who is running for the seat again, maintain that because of the way the district is spread out and because of the concentration of affluent white voters in Madison County, who historically vote at a higher rate than do poorer people, it is difficult for an African American to win the district.

African Americans represent 13 of the other black majority districts in the Senate with the other represented by a white Democrat.

In the 122 member House, there are 42 black majority districts, 38 of which are represented by African Americans, (37 Democrats and one independent) and four of which are represented by white Democrats.

The candidates qualified to run in District 22 are Thomas, Ruffin Smith, Vince “Bigg” V. Roberts, Ermea “EJ” Russell, Colton Thornton and Earl Scales. The Republicans are Hayes Dent and Dwayne Self while the independents are Terrance Edison Jr. and Calvin Stewart.

In District 13, the Democrats who qualified are Carl Brinkley, Tony G. Anderson, Mark Buckner Jr., Charles Modley, Sarita M. Simmons and John Marshall Alexander. Alexander filed earlier this year as an independent but changed to Democratic after the Legislature swapped precincts between 22 and 13. Republican B.C. Hammond also is running in the District 13 election.