Legislative redistricting changes ordered by courts

Published 12:00 pm Wednesday, July 10, 2024

Legislative redistricting changes ordered by courts
By Sid Salter
The most recent federal court ruling ordering Mississippi to make changes in state
legislative districts based on federal Voting Rights Act violations isn’t your grandfather’s
federal court order on legislative redistricting or even your father’s.
The new voting rights ruling in the case Mississippi State Conference of the NAACP, et
al, v. State Board of Election Commissioners, et al, differs.
Historically, Voting Rights Act cases in Mississippi and much of the rest of the South
were dependent on the concept of “federal preclearance” of proposed election changes
– changes like the creating new boundaries in state legislative districts – that required
prior approval from the U.S. Justice Department before they could be enacted in states
“with a history of racial discrimination in voting.”
In 2013, the Supreme Court ruled in Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder that Sections 4
and 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act were being unconstitutionally applied in nine states
including Mississippi.
Adopted by Congress during the height of the American civil rights struggle, Section 5 of
the VRA identified states and localities with a history of race-based voter discrimination
and mandated that those “covered jurisdictions” obtain federal approval or
“preclearance” from the U.S. Justice Department before making changes to any state or
local voting laws or voting districts. The process significantly slowed the process of state
and federal legislative redistricting in those states.
But the 2013 high court ruling lifted that preclearance provision and tossed Mississippi
redistricting or voting rights disputes directly into the courts like the rest of the country.
From a rhetorical standpoint, Southern politicians would rail against the “liberal Justice
Department” or “liberal judges” when Mississippi laws or district lines would be ruled in
violation of the VRA, but preclearance was no longer an obstacle.
The 2024 court order doesn’t remotely fit that narrative despite reaffirming the state’s
clear history of discrimination in voting rights. First of all, the ruling came down from a
three-judge federal panel of white Mississippi jurists consisting of 5th U.S. Circuit Court
of Appeals Judge Leslie Southwick, U.S. Chief District Judge Daniel Jordan and U.S.

District Judge Sul Ozerden – all of whom were appointed to the federal bench by former
Republican President George W. Bush over 15 years ago.
Unlike legislative redistricting disputes in the past, this ruling didn’t toss the entire
redistricting plan for the Mississippi Legislature out the judicial window. The ruling is
limited in scope to a handful of legislative districts and expressly offers the Legislature
the opportunity to provide legal remedies to what the judges identified as an
unconstitutional dilution of Black voting strength in three geographic areas of the state.
The ruling requires the creation of new Black-majority state Senate districts in the areas
around DeSoto County in Northern Mississippi and in and around the city of Hattiesburg
and a new Black-majority state House district in Chickasaw and Monroe counties.
Sounds clear enough, but the fact is that when the lines in one legislative district are
adjusted it impacts all the contiguous districts. As the voluminous judicial ruling
indicates, legislative redistricting is a complex exercise.
The language of the Mississippi legislative redistricting case reflects similar federal court
intervention in both congressional and legislative redistricting litigation in Louisiana and
Georgia in which the court allowed state officials to craft their legal remedies for prior
maps that diluted Black voting strength. In Louisiana, state officials created a second
black-majority congressional district.
In Georgia, a federal judge approved a solution that resulted in the creation of new
Black-majority districts but also accepted district lines that protected Republican
partisan advantages.
Each Mississippi State Senate district has about 56,998 residents while each
Mississippi State House district is comprised of 24,294 residents.
In the 2022 legislative redistricting plan that was the target of the lawsuit, 15 (29%) of
the state’s 52 state Senate districts were Black majority while 42 (34%) of the 122 state
House districts were Black majority.
Mississippi’s population is currently about 59% white and 38% Black.
Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at sidsalter@sidsalter.com.

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