A visitor to the Mississippi Capitol in Jackson, uses his cell phone to photograph a graphic of the state that depicts census growth or loss in each county over a 10-year period in Jackson, Miss., Thursday, Aug. 26, 2021. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

As the 2023 session of the Mississippi Legislature gets underway this week, lawmakers face the specter of a federal lawsuit.

Various groups have joined together to file a lawsuit on behalf of the NAACP and other Mississippians claiming that the newly drawn legislative districts dilute the voting strength of African Americans.

Republicans, who enjoy supermajorities in both the House and Senate, drew and passed the new legislative districts in 2022 session. The lawsuit asks that the districts be declared unconstitutional and that new districts be drawn.

Carroll Rhodes of Hazlehurst, a long-time civil rights attorney who is involved in the lawsuit, has said in the past the new legislative districts violate federal law and the U.S. Constitution by “packing” Black voters in a smaller number of districts to dilute their strength.

Rhodes and others claim that a new redistricting plan could generate more Black majority districts in addition to increasing the number of African Americans in other districts to provide them more impact in non-minority majority districts.

“Mississippi’s newest maps are a continuation of the state’s long history of disenfranchising Black voters. Black voices were not heard in the redistricting process and these districts, which break up Black communities and limit their electoral voice, are the result,” said Janette McCarthy, general counsel with the NAACP. “If our elections are to be just, equitable and fair, it is imperative that all Mississippians have a fair opportunity to elect candidates that reflect their communities and are responsive to their needs.”

READ MORE: Civil rights attorney signals possible lawsuit over new legislative districts that dilute Black votes

The 174 members of the Mississippi Legislature (52 senators and 122 House members) face a Feb. 1 deadline to qualify to run for reelection. So the federal lawsuit will play out against the backdrop of the 2023 campaign.

Under the plan approved by the Legislature and facing the federal lawsuit, 29% of the Senate districts are majority African American while 34% of the House districts are. Based on the 2020 Census, the state’s African American or partially African American population is 38%, while the white population is 59%.

Under the current maps, there are 42 Black majority districts in the House and 15 in the Senate. But the number of districts where Black voters can have an influence, such as a district with an African American population of more than 35%, has been significantly reduced over the past two redistricting cycles.

Redistricting normally occurs every 10 years after the U.S. Census. Legislative districts across the country must be redrawn to match population shifts found by the census.

Those involved in the lawsuit include both the national and state chapter of the NAACP, state and national chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union, the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the law firm of Morgan, Lewis and Bockius, the Mississippi Center for Justice, and others.

A three-judge panel has been convened to hear the lawsuit. The federal panel consists of Circuit Judge Leslie Southwick, Chief Judge Daniel Jordan of the Southern District of Mississippi and Judge Sol Ozerden of the Southern District.

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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.