Final documents to be filed in Noxubee discrimination case

Published 3:18 pm Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Final documents are to be filed this week in a federal case that contends the majority-black Noxubee County Democratic Party and the county election commission practiced racial discrimination against white voters and candidates.

The federal government wants U.S. District Judge Tom Lee to order that steps be taken to ensure fair elections for whites in the predominantly black county in east Mississippi.

This is the first lawsuit in the nation the Justice Department has filed to claim that whites’ voting rights have been violated.

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The Justice Department has called the situation in Noxubee County “the most extreme case of racial exclusion seen by the (department’s) Voting Section in decades.”

Black political leaders in Noxubee County say they have not violated whites’ voting rights.

The Democrats argue the federal government is misconstruing their rivalry against Republicans as racial bias. The black party officials, including chairman Ike Brown, claim the Justice Department filed the lawsuit in February 2005 only after Republicans complained about being excluded from county politics.

During a two-week trial in January, Lee heard arguments from both the Justice Department and the Noxubee County Democrats. It’s not clear when he’ll hand down a ruling.

The Justice Department contends Brown and his political operatives rigged elections through manipulation, intimidation and fraud to ensure whites were cut out of the election process.

Bruce Adelson, a former Justice Department attorney involved in voting rights litigation, said the federal agency faced a difficult challenge in showing that race rather than politics played a role in whites being shut out.

Adelson has been watching the Noxubee County case from Maryland, where he lives and practices law.

“Voter fraud cases at the federal level are very rare and very unusual,” Adelson said.

He said proving intent to swindle elections is hard. Federal prosecutors could be haphazardly throwing a net at Noxubee County blacks by alleging they stole elections from whites, Adelson said.

“Voter fraud — the term is bandied about too loosely,” Adelson said.

Justice Department claims against Brown and his allies include that they recruited a black lawyer from Jackson with a fake Noxubee County residence to run against County Attorney Ricky Walker, who is white; and that they rigged absentee ballots by counting bogus votes by blacks and throwing out legitimate ones by whites.

The Justice Department, in a report from its Civil Rights Division’s Voting Section, said it had made powerful points.

“The Noxubee case is unusual for several reasons: it is the most extreme case of racial exclusion seen by the Voting Section in decades; the racial discrimination is directed against white citizens; and we are not aware of any case in which the Voting Section has had to move for a protective order to prevent intimidation of witnesses.”

The Justice Department raised eyebrows by bringing the case to court to protect whites when some activists believe it hasn’t been aggressive in pursuing voting-rights litigation to protect blacks during President Bush’s administration, Adelson said.

“This case does raise legitimate concerns on the part of many people,” he said.

In taking issue with claims that it hasn’t pursued allegations of blacks’ voting rights being violated around the country, the Justice Department said “the president and the attorney general strongly supported” the 2006 reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act.

“The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division is committed to ensuring that all citizens have equal access to the democratic process,” states the agency’s report, issued through its Office of Public Affairs at the request of The Commercial Dispatch.