The latest saga in the MS Senate District 22 redistricting suit came with a mixed decision from a 3 judge panel from the 5th Circuit on Friday. The judges, in a split ruling, granted a stay to the State of Mississippi regarding District Judge Carlton Reeves decision, but effectively ordered the Mississippi legislature to come up with a redistricting plan to create a higher minority voting percentage in one particular Senate district currently occupied by Sen. Buck Clarke (R), who is white.
The suit was brought by three SD 22 residents including one who was a former unsuccessful candidate for the seat, who is black. In February, Judge Carlton Reeves ordered the singular district to be redrawn essentially to increase the black voting age population (BVAP).
“The 2010 Census data showed that Mississippi was 59.1% white and 40.9% non-white. After redistricting with these data, therefore, one might have expected fresh maps to result in an upper legislative chamber with something like 31 white Senators and 21 non-white Senators. But there are only 15 majority-minority Senate Districts and the Senate has never had more than 13 African-American members. In plain English, Mississippi’s Senate is much whiter than Mississippi. “
The Reeves decision incorporates several options submitted by the plaintiffs which would take the current 50.8% minority district up to over 60%.
The three judge panel has extended the qualifying deadline to April 12 and required a plan to be submitted by April 3. It now appears that the Legislature will likely redraw a plan.
“The districting plan in Mississippi’s State Senate effectively denied African American voters the right to choose their elected officials,” alleges Kristen Clarke, President and Executive Director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, representing the plaintiffs.
The questions now are what will that plan look like and which other senate districts will be disturbed? And what increase of minority composition will satisfy the Court? 51%? 53%? 58%? 60%? There’s no clear guidance from the district or appellate court. Surrounding districts that touch SD 22 include those currently occupied by Briggs Hobson, Barbara Blackmon, Willie Simmons, John Horhn and Walter Michel. The Legislature might make a de minimis change that tweaks SD 22 and submit it near sine die, which might again force the hand of plaintiffs to fight the over the amount of the change to the district. If not judicially acceptable solution can be crafted, it could put the Court in a position of drawing its own or possibly trying to force the Legislature into a special session.
Currently the Mississippi legislature is governed by a Republican supermajority. The entire Mississippi legislature will be subject to redistricting subject to the results of the upcoming 2020 census.
What seems clear is that both the district court and the appellate court seem hesitant to draw the district outside of the legislative districting function. Additional color to the 5th circuit judges’ opinions are expected with more detailed opinions and dissents due sometime over the next week.