Lawsuit challenges districts in Alabama’s largest county

A federal lawsuit filed is challenging commission districts in Alabama’s largest county, saying the plan illegally packs Black voters into two districts, and limiting their influence in the other three and the direction of government
Published: Apr. 10, 2023 at 1:14 PM CDT
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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — A federal lawsuit filed Friday challenges commission districts in Alabama’s largest county, accusing the Jefferson County Commission of illegally packing Black voters into two districts and limiting their influence in the other three and the direction of government.

The lawsuit accuses the Jefferson County Commission of intentionally packing Black voters into two super-majority Black commission districts based in and around Birmingham. The commission over the last decade, the lawsuit maintains, has siphoned Black voters from the suburbs into those two districts to prevent them from exercising greater political power in surrounding districts

The lawsuit was filed by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and Wiggins, Childs, Pantazis, Fisher & Goldfarb on behalf of Greater Birmingham Ministries and Jefferson County resident and activist Cara McClure.

"These are super-packed districts. The Voting Rights Act prohibits the packing of Black voters in such a manner that they are denied the ability to influence the adjacent district. We see that in Jefferson County Commission where you have these two more central Birmingham districts that are majority Black but now reach out to the suburbs to grab and separate Black communities in those suburbs from their white counterparts in those same suburbs,” LDF assistant counsel Kathryn Sadasivan said.

A representative from the county wasn't immediately available for comment on Friday. Offices were closed for the Good Friday holiday.

A 1985 consent decree created the two majority-Black districts, expanding the commission from what had been three at-large positions, so Black voters would have an opportunity to elect candidates of their choice. But, the lawsuit contends, the county has packed people of color into the districts in greater numbers than necessary in the ensuing years.

Black voters make up 40% of the voting age population in the county but in districts 1 and 2 account for 76.34% and 64.11%, respectively, of the voting age population, according to the lawsuit.

“For over a decade, the Jefferson County Commission has packed Black voters into two Commission districts, ensuring that communities of color have less influence on the Commission than they would have under a fair system," Alabama NAACP President Benard Simelton said in a statement.

The lawsuit also accuses the county of using an abbreviated process to draw new lines, holding only one public hearing.

The lawsuit comes as the U.S. Supreme Court is poised to decide a challenge to Alabama's congressional districts that accuses state lawmakers of splintering historic Black communities to create one majority Black congressional district and keep the other six districts as majority white. A three-judge panel ruled the congressional map likely violated the Voting Rights Act and ordered the state to create a second congressional district where Black voters were a majority of the voting age population or close to it. The state appealed and the Supreme Court put the redistricting order on hold. Justices heard oral arguments in the case in October. At that hearing the Supreme Court's conservative majority appeared open to making it harder to create majority Black electoral districts,

Jefferson County is Alabama’s largest county, and home to Birmingham, the city center of the largest metropolitan area in the state. The county was the site of the some of most infamous moments of the civil rights movement including the 1963 bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church that killed four girls and the 1963 children’s march when police used high-pressure fire hoses and police dogs against students who were marching for racial equality. The industrial city has evolved into a corporate economic engine fueled in part by the state’s banking and medical industries.