A lawsuit was filed last month challenging Alabama’s method of electing appellate judges statewide. It’s contended that the current method makes it nearly impossible to elect an African-American. Currently, all 19 judges on the Alabama Supreme Court, the Court of Criminal Appeals and the Court of Civil Appeals are white. History confirms that it is more difficult for blacks to be elected at large in Alabama. The lawsuit, filed on behalf of the Alabama NAACP and four black citizens, wants the state to change over to district elections. It’s contended that the at-large method “unlawfully dilutes the voting strength of African Americans and prevents them from electing candidates of their choice.”
The case was filed in federal court in Montgomery and alleges the state is in violation of the Voting Rights Act. At present about one-quarter of Alabama’s voting-age population is African-American. No black jurists have been elected to any of the three appellate courts over the past 21 years and that’s a pretty strong argument for change.
It’s said that Alabama’s record of racially polarized voting, where blacks and whites have strongly different preferences, makes it harder for minority voters to have enough power to elect a minority candidate. Kristen Clarke, President and Executive Director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, had this to say:
We are struck by the fact that, in such an extended period of time, African Americans have been unable to elect a judge of their choice to one of three highest courts in state. The racial dynamics we see when it comes to voting sparked a desire to look at what was happening in the state and ultimately led us to file this case.
Only two black justices, Oscar Adams and Ralph Cook, have been elected to the Alabama Supreme Court, and each was first appointed to the job by the governor. A third, John England Jr., was appointed in 1999, but he was defeated a year later. There have been nine black candidates for seats on the three courts since 2000, and all were defeated by white candidates. It should be noted that this isn’t the first time civil rights groups have tried to change how Alabama elects its appellate judges. A similar lawsuit, filed 22 years ago, was settled with an agreement that the state would add seats to the appellate courts and give minority groups a voice in selecting the new appointees. The proposed settlement was ultimately thrown out by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in 1996.
In this new case, the civil rights groups are asking the court to elect judges by district instead of at large, with at least one district having a majority black population. The new lawsuit makes no mention of political parties, which is also a factor in Alabama judicial elections. All appellate judges in Alabama are Republican, along with every other statewide elected official, and that doesn’t appear to be a factor in the suit. Ms. Clarke said her organization did not look at the “partisan dynamics” involved. She added:
The only reason we focused on this is that African Americans make up 26 percent of the population. And what we see in Alabama is an environment that has intensely racially polarized voting.
This lawsuit will be watched closely. It will be most interesting to see how the case is defended. The historical truth concerning diversity on the appellate courts will be undisputed. The question will be if the U.S. Constitution and the Voting Rights Act requires the election of appellate court judges to reflect the demographic make-up of its citizens. Stay tuned!
Source: Montgomery Advertiser
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