Appeals court upholds ruling that Legislature diluted black voter strength in Senate District 22

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A three judge panel of the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld a lower court ruling forcing the redrawing of the 102-mile-long state Senate District 22 because it diluted black voter strength.

Rob McDuff

In mid-June, attorney Rob McDuff, who represented African American plaintiffs in the case, said he expected the decision of the lower court forcing the redrawing of the district to be upheld. He said at the time, he thought the decision would be upheld because the ballots had been printed and candidates had qualified and were campaigning in the newly drawn District 22.

The Mississippi Center for Justice and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law filed the lawsuit last year on behalf of four African Americans in the district. Federal Judge Carlton Reeves of the Southern District of Mississippi ruled in favor of the plaintiffs.

Based on Reeves’ ruling, the Legislature redrew the district during the closing days of the 2019 legislative session.

After that, Gov. Phil Bryant and Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann appealed Reeves’ ruling to the 5th Circuit. A three judge panel of the 5th Circuit heard oral arguments in the case in early June.

The three judge panel on Thursday then ruled 2-1 to uphold the lower court decision. The secretary of state’s office had no comment when asked if it would appeal the decision.

“We are gratified that the 5th Circuit has agreed that the overwhelming evidence in this case showed that the Mississippi Legislature drew District 22 in a way that deprived African American voters of an equal opportunity to participate in the political process.  This is an important victory.” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

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 – Republican Buck Clarke.

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 redrawing the district during the 2019 session to adhere to Reeves’ decision, 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.

The candidates qualified to run in District 22 are Joseph Thomas, Mark Buckner Sr., Ruffin Smith, Ermea “EJ” Russell and Colton Thornton. 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, Charles Modley, Sarita M. Simmons and John Marshall Alexander. B.C. Hammond also is running in the District 13 election as a Republican.

Thomas, one of the plaintiffs in the case, lost to Clarke in 2015.