The Alabama Supreme Court met during a special session last month at Samford University in Birmingham to hear arguments in two cases: Exxon Corp. v. Department of Conservation and Natural Resourses et al., and Ex Parte Alabama. While both cases were important, the second is especially noteworthy for obvious reasons.
Despite accounting for more than one-quarter of the state’s population, African-Americans rarely get elected to the state’s highest courts – a situation advocacy groups want to change by ending statewide judicial elections. Their argument got a boost recently when a federal judge rejected motions to dismiss a lawsuit brought last fall by the NAACP of Alabama and The Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. The organizations had filed suit against the state of Alabama and Secretary of State John Merrill.
The lawsuit alleges that the practice of holding statewide elections for Alabama’s 19 appellate judges disenfranchises black voters. Instead, civil rights groups propose creating districts for elections, increasing the odds for black candidates in majority-black districts. Ezra Rosenberg of the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights under Law, in a statement, said:
We will now continue to aggressively litigate this case to achieve a remedy that gives African American voters a real opportunity to elect members to these courts which play such important parts in their lives.
Alabama has three appellate courts – the state Supreme Court, Court of Criminal Appeals and Court of Civil Appeals. All 19 members of those courts are white. Three black judges have served on those courts and two have won statewide elections for seats. The courts have been all-white for the last 16 years, according to the Lawyer’s Committee.
Chief U.S. District Judge Keith Watkins rejected the argument that the state’s interest in maintaining the current system outweighed concerns about weakening the minority vote. Judge Watkins wrote:
Defendants appear to argue that the degree to which Alabama’s electoral system may have diluted the black vote is irrelevant because, no matter how extreme the vote dilution, the interest of minority citizens to participate in the democratic process can never outweigh the state’s interest in maintaining the status quo. Defendants’ argument is untenable.
Alabama is one of just five states that hold partisan, statewide elections for appellate courts. Candidates run as Democrats or Republicans, and all the judges currently on the bench ran as Republicans.
Federal courts can step in if voting power is diluted among minority groups, which is the allegation made in the lawsuit. However, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that states are not required to create districts in judicial races, according to the motion filed by attorneys for Alabama and Merrill. Justices rule on cases from all over the state and should therefore be elected in statewide elections, according to attorneys for the Defendants. Benard Simelton, president of the Alabama NAACP, said in a statement:
The Alabama NAACP is elated that the court has ruled in favor of the people to deny Alabama’s motion to dismiss this case. We will continue to fight to ensure that African Americans are treated equally under the law and have the ability to elect judges of their choosing.
It will be most interesting to see how the case turns out. I believe this effort may well be successful. If so, Alabama will be better as a result.
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