Attorney Waverly Harkins takes a cell phone photograph of the expanded view of newly proposed congressional boundaries between Hinds and Madison counties following a meeting of the Joint Congressional Redistricting and Legislative Reapportionment Committees at the Capitol in Jackson, Miss., Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2021. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

A three-judge federal panel that has been overseeing the redistricting of Mississippi’s congressional seats since the early 2000s has declined to rule on whether the state’s four newly drawn U.S. House districts are constitutional.

Judges E. Grady Jolly of the U.S. 5th Circuit and David Bramlette of the Southern District of Mississippi refused to rule on the argument made by the NAACP and other groups that the four new districts are racially gerrymandered and dilute the voting strength of African Americans.

The third member of the panel, Judge Henry T. Wingate of the Southern District of Mississippi, said the majority was “shirking” its responsibility by not hearing the case. Bramlette also wrote separately that he did not totally discount the arguments of racial gerrymandering.

Bramlette said, “It is this judge’s view … that the citizens of Mississippi will be better served by giving their elected representatives the chance to revisit these issues in the upcoming 2023 legislative session.”

But ultimately Bramlette agreed with Jolly to end the panel’s oversight of Mississippi’s U.S. House elections altogether.

READ MORE: Mississippi NAACP questions constitutionality of redistricting plan

Jolly and Bramlette said their ruling did not prevent the NAACP and others from filing a separate lawsuit arguing the plan approved by the Legislature in January and signed into law by Gov. Tate Reeves is unconstitutional because of the alleged racial gerrymandering.

But in the meantime, elections are slated to go forward this year under the plan approved by the Legislature. The primary elections are scheduled for June 7 with the general election set for November.

All of the judges agreed that the elections should not be postponed.

The NAACP, One Voice, Black Voters Matter Capacity Building Institute and other organizations earlier argued for the three-judge panel to halt the use of the legislative plan and instead use a plan proposed by the NAACP or instead develop its own plan while hearing arguments on the constitutionality of the legislative plan. The Mississippi Republican Party and others had argued that the legislative plan is constitutional, but they wanted the judges to find the plan constitutional before relinquishing their jurisdiction of the case.

The three-judge panel initially drew a congressional map for the state after the 2000 U.S. Census when the Legislature could not agree on a redistricting plan. The state lost a congressional district based on the results of the 2000 Census because of slow population growth.

Then in 2011, the three-judge panel again redrew the districts to adhere to population shifts found by the 2010 Census after the Legislature again was unable to agree on a congressional map.

The Legislature did agree on a plan after the 2020 Census, though every African American state lawmaker in both the House and Senate voted against it.

READ MORE: Lawmakers redraw congressional districts for first time since early 1990s

Under the plan approved by the Legislature, Congressional District 2, the state’s only Black majority district, will run nearly the entire western length of the state with Adams, Amite, Franklin and Wilkinson counties in southwest Mississippi being added to the district. The district will extend from Tunica in northwest Mississippi to the Louisiana-Mississippi border in southwest Mississippi. The only county that borders the Mississippi River not in the district is heavily Republican DeSoto County.

District 2 is the only one of the state’s four congressional districts to lose population since 2010 — more than 9%, or about 65,000 people.

District 2 incumbent Rep. Bennie Thompson, the state’s lone African American and Democratic member of the congressional delegation, supported the NAACP proposal to make District 2 more compact with a smaller Black majority than in the legislative plan. The NAACP argued under its plan an African American candidate could still be elected in the 2nd District while allowing Black voters to have more of an impact in other districts in the state.

Mississippi’s newly drawn U.S. House map passed during the 2022 legislative session.

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Bobby Harrison, Mississippi Today’s senior capitol reporter, covers politics, government and the Mississippi State Legislature. He also writes a weekly news analysis which is co-published in newspapers statewide. A native of Laurel, Bobby joined our team June 2018 after working for the North Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo since 1984. He is president of the Mississippi Capitol Press Corps Association and works with the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute to organize press luncheons. Bobby has a bachelor's in American Studies from the University of Southern Mississippi and has received multiple awards from the Mississippi Press Association, including the Bill Minor Best Investigative/In-depth Reporting and Best Commentary Column.