Multiple groups have filed a federal lawsuit claiming Mississippi’s three Supreme Court districts, which have not been redrawn in more than 35 years, dilute Black voter strength.
The lawsuit was filed in the Northern District of Mississippi on behalf of Black citizens of the state who claim the districts should have been redrawn since the 1980s by the Legislature to adhere to population changes found by the U.S Census.
“Mississippi’s Supreme Court districts dilute the voice and the votes of Black Mississippians in violation of federal law,” said Ari Savitzky, senior attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union Voting Rights Project.
The state, which has an African American population of about 38%, has nine Supreme Court justices – one of which is Black.
Justice Leslie King is the fourth Black Mississippian to represent the Central District on the state’s high court. All four Black judges initially were appointed to a post on the court by governors and later won election to the court.
When asked why it had been so long since the Legislature had redrawn the districts, House Speaker Philip Gunn had no comment other than to say he was not familiar with the lawsuit.
In 2020, Latrice Westbrooks, a member of the Court of Appeals, sought to become the second African American serving simultaneously on the Supreme Court for the first time in the state’s history and sought to be the first Black woman to serve on the Supreme Court. She lost by about 12,000 votes to Kenneth Griffis who garnered about 51% of the vote.
The three transportation commissioners and three public service commissioners also are elected from the three Supreme Court districts. Willie Simmons of Cleveland, who is African American, currently serves as the Central District transportation commissioner.
He is the first African American elected to serve as a public service commissioner or transportation commissioner.
The lawsuit says the Central District “could easily be redrawn, consistent with traditional principles, to have a majority of eligible Black voters. Especially in light of the high degree of racial polarization in voting in Mississippi, such a change is needed to ensure that Supreme Court elections comply with federal law and allow Black Mississippians a fair and equal opportunity to elect candidates of their choosing.”
The lawsuit says the districts violate federal voting rights law. Because of federal law, states must redraw state legislative and U.S. congressional districts every 10 years to adhere to population shifts found by the decennial U.S. Census. States have more leeway in adhering “to one-man, one-vote” or equal representation principles in judicial districts, but still there are federal and judicial guidelines that must be met in drawing the judicial districts.
“Equal opportunities to ascend to high leadership roles like state Supreme Court justice will draw in more potential leaders committed to building their lives and careers in Mississippi,” said businesswoman Dyamone White, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. “As a business owner who plans to build a family here in Mississippi, I am committed to building up our state. That means creating Supreme Court district maps that give Black Mississippians fair representation and equal opportunity.”
Other plaintiffs are Ty Pinkins, a 20-year Army veteran and Georgetown law graduate; educator Constance Slaughter Harvey-Burwell; and state Senate Minority Leader Derrick Simmons of Greenville.
The lawsuit was filed by the ACLU, ACLU of Mississippi, Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and the law firm of Simpson Thacher & Bartlett.
The next Supreme Court elections are slated for 2024 when three members of the court will be up for re-election. The PSC and transportation commissioners will be on the ballot in 2023.