Federal court upholds district lines for 2014

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Rep. Steve Clouse, R-Ozark, looks over proposed reapportionment maps at a meeting on May 10, 2012.   A federal court has ruled that the new map is constitutional, rejecting a challenge from black lawmakers. (Associated Press, Dave Martin)

Rep. Steve Clouse, R-Ozark, looks over proposed reapportionment maps at a meeting on May 10, 2012. A federal court has ruled that the new map is constitutional, rejecting a challenge from black lawmakers. (Associated Press, Dave Martin)

A three-judge federal court Friday ruled that district lines approved by the Republican-controlled Legislature in 2012 are constitutional, turning away challenges to the lines from the Alabama Democratic Conference and the Alabama Legislative Black Caucus.

In a 173-page opinion, U.S. Circuit Judge William Pryor, a former Alabama Attorney General, found that districts created in 2001 had suffered “malapportionment” due to population shifts, with underpopulation being especially severe in the state’s majority-minority districts, and were not, as plaintiffs claimed, “predominantly motivated by racial considerations when it adopted the new districts.”

Plaintiffs argued that black voters had been “packed” into voting districts to dilute their voting strength, but in a 2-1 decision, the three-judge panel rejected that argument, saying the plaintiffs had not presented alternative plans that would bear out their arguments.

The majority also said that the committee that designed the new district lines was within its rights to use a population deviation standard of two percent, a guideline saying that districts’ population could only go above or below a certain threshold.

“Nothing in section 2 of the Voting Rights Act would require the State to adopt a higher population deviation and a less equal system for the election of its representatives to give minorities a better opportunity than other members of the electorate to participate in the political process,” Pryor wrote in an opinion joined by U.S. District Judge William Watkins. “Stated differently, minority voters are not entitled to greater voting power than non-minority voters.”

The new district lines, the source of a special session and lengthy debate in 2012, are scheduled to take effect for the primaries next June.

James Anderson, a Montgomery attorney who represented the plaintiffs, said they were still reviewing the court’s decision Friday afternoon. He said they were mulling whether to appeal the court’s ruling.

In a statement, Attorney General Luther Strange, whose office represented the state, said he was “committed to protecting every citizen’s right to vote for equal representation in state government.”

“I have believed from the beginning of this process that Alabama complied with all legal and constitutional requirements in adopting the new district lines, and I am pleased that the court agreed with our position that the new legislative districts are consistent with federal law,” the statement said.

The judges also ruled that the map in itself did not deny black voters an equal opportunity to participate in the political process. The majority also questioned several witnesses’ testimony about high black populations in the newly created districts, noting several of them had been content with high percentage black populations in districts drawn by majority Democrats in 2001.

“What has changed in the last few years to support the conclusion, from the perspective of the Black Caucus plaintiffs, that the new majority-black districts are unconstitutional when the old majority-black districts were constitutional?” the judges wrote. “The answer is simple: The Republicans now control the Legislature instead of the Democrats.”

In a 128-page dissent, U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson wrote that the lawmakers who drew the maps appeared “strikingly rigid” to their deviations, and said that adherence to that deviation showed that they were trying to establish a set percentage of black voters in each district, following percentages established in 2001 and using 2010 Census data.

“This kind of requirement has a name: racial quota,” Thompson wrote, going on to say that in the districts, “there was no other explanation” for the outcome of the districts “other than race.” The judge argued the state had not provided a “race neutral” explanation for the construction of the districts.

“What is most striking is the extent to which the drafters did succeed in matching the black percentage of the majority-black districts,” Thompson wrote. “The black percentage of the population in 13 House Districts and three Senate Districts is within one percentage point of the stated goal; in other words, the drafters effectively hit their quotas in those districts.”

– posted by Brian Lyman

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