Black plaintiffs had attacked Miss. voting method for judges

Published 7:01 pm Wednesday, November 1, 2006

The attorney for a group of black plaintiffs has withdrawn a federal complaint challenging how Mississippi will elect state circuit and chancery judges.

Attorney Carroll Rhodes of Hazlehurst, who filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in October, told Judge Henry T. Wingate that he was withdrawing the request after the Justice Department officially pre-cleared the election change Monday in a letter.

“Our complaint was that it should be submitted for pre-clearance,” Rhodes said. “On Oct. 10, the state submitted it for pre-clearance and on Oct. 30, 2006, the attorney general tentatively gave pre-clearance.”

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Rhodes told Wingate the request shouldn’t go forward.

In the pre-clearance letter, the Justice Department said that for the remainder of the 60-day period the office has to review the matter under the Voting Rights Act, information can be submitted that could result in changes to the pre-clearance.

Rhodes said plaintiffs were never seeking to stop or postpone the election. Rhodes said he wanted the judiciary races under the election law before it was rewritten by the Legislature in 2005.

He said the new law was to take effect Jan. 1, 2007, not for the Nov. 7 general election.

The lawsuit said that in six chancery court and nine circuit court districts, the opportunity for the election of black candidates has been harmed by the new law.

In those districts, the Legislature changed the election process from a “herd” system to a “post” system. The lawsuit had asked a federal panel to revert to the herd system for the Nov. 7 elections.

Under the herd system, all candidates run in a pack and the top vote getters win the available seats. The herd system was put in place in the late 1980s as part of a settlement of a lawsuit that also claimed the judicial election method diluted black voting strength.

Supporters argue the herd system can help blacks be elected because minorities can make their vote count more by voting only once, presumably for the black candidate.

In the post system, candidates choose the post for which they are running. Many incumbents like the post system because generally a challenger will opt not to run against an incumbent if there is an open spot to pursue.