US judges hear Miss. redistricting case arguments

Published 3:39 am Sunday, April 24, 2011

Mississippi’s legislative redistricting battle moved from the statehouse to the courthouse Friday as attorneys on all sides of the complex issue made arguments before a panel of three federal judges on what political lines to use in coming elections.

The judges listened without giving a clue to what they’ll decide, or when. Time is tight because candidates face a June 1 qualifying deadline for this year’s legislative contests.

Attorneys argued for and against several options.

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Attorney General Jim Hood said that for this year’s election, Mississippi should use House and Senate maps that were debated — but died — during the recently ended legislative session.

Mississippi’s 122 state House districts and 52 state Senate districts are redrawn every 10 years to reflect population changes.

Hood, a Democrat, said the 2011 election would be for a four-year term, then lawmakers in 2012 could draw new districts for the 2015 and 2019 elections.

“The people of the state of Mississippi want to have fair elections,” Hood said.

Citing the struggling economy, Hood also said people only want to have one legislative election during a four-year term. When redistricting efforts faltered 20 years ago, Mississippi had its regularly scheduled legislative election in 1991 using outdated districts following the previous year’s Census. Under an order from federal judges, lawmakers drew new districts in early 1992 and new elections were held that fall in those districts, with winners serving the final three years of the terms.

Michael Wallace, a private attorney representing the state Republican Party, argued in court Friday that there’s no basis for using maps with political boundaries that never got final approval from the House and Senate. Wallace said legislators tried and failed to agree on redistricting plans.

“Just because they haven’t reached agreement doesn’t mean you don’t have to follow the law,” Wallace told the judges.

The state constitution says redistricting plans are supposed to be adopted by a joint resolution of the House and Senate.

During the 2011 session, the House passed its own redistricting plan, but the Senate rejected the House plan. Both chambers passed a Senate plan, but the Senate plan stalled because it was in the same resolution with the House plan. When the session ended April 7, both plans died.

The 2010 Census showed significant growth in DeSoto County, a relatively affluent area just south of Memphis, Tenn. It showed population losses in the economically struggling Delta.

A lawsuit by the state chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People moved redistricting into federal court. The suit, filed in March, seeks to block elections this year in the legislative districts that have been used for the past decade but are now outdated.

Any redistricting plans adopted by lawmakers must be approved by the U.S. Justice Department, which checks to ensure that the plans don’t dilute minorities’ voting strength. Lawmakers say Justice department approval generally takes about 60 days.

Robert McDuff, an attorney representing the House Elections Committee in the redistricting lawsuit, made similar arguments to Hood’s on Friday, asking the judges to submit the House and Senate plans that were debated during the recent session to the Justice Department. McDuff said that based on conversations he’s had with Justice Department deputies, he believes the department would approve those plans for the 2011 election cycle.

The presiding judge hearing arguments Friday, Grady Jolly of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, asked GOP attorney Wallace if he agrees with McDuff’s assessment about quick Justice approval.

“My friends in the Justice Department all lost their jobs,” Wallace said, eliciting laughter from a courtroom audience that included Democrats and Republicans.

The judges could hire experts and draw legislative districts themselves, but Hood argued that would be expensive.

The attorney general’s office said after the hearing Friday that Mississippi paid about $200,000 in legal fees after a congressional redistricting dispute went to federal court. The state picked up the tab for all parties involved in that case.