Federal judge approves district map

Lazaro Aleman
ECB Publishing, Inc.

Federal Judge Mark E. Walker earlier this week accepted the redrawn district map that the Jefferson County Commission and School Board adopted on Friday, April 1, and submitted to him on Monday, April 4, in keeping with a court-mandated redistricting deadline. In a seven-page decision issued early Monday morning, April 18, Walker rejected the plaintiffs’ arguments that the county’s remedial plan violated the spirit, if not the intent, of the 1985 federal consent decree that led to the formation of single-member districts here. “The plan may not be perfect, but plaintiffs have not shown that it violates any federal or state law or that it violates the 1985 consent decree,” Judge Walker wrote of Jefferson County’s new district map. In his ruling, the judge underscored the consensual and contractual nature of a decree, which he said embodied an agreement that all “parties desire and expect will be reflected in, and be enforceable as, a judicial decree that is subject to the rules generally applicable to other judgments and decrees.” “There was some suggestion at the telephonic hearing held on April 15, 2016, that there’s more to the consent decree — that there’s some other agreement which includes terms not spelled out in the final judgment,” Walker wrote. If there were such an additional agreement, however, the plaintiffs had failed to reveal it to the court, the judge said. He noted that the 1985 judgment had accomplished several things, among which were enjoining Jefferson County from using countywide at-large elections and providing that candidates must reside in the district where they sought office. The defendants’ plan, Walker said, clearly met all the decree’s requirements, with the possible exception, per the plaintiffs’ contention, of it being inconsistent with the 1985 plan. “Obviously the new plan is not the same as the old one — Jefferson County has redistricted many times since 1985 in light of population and demographic changes,” Walker wrote. “But plaintiffs’ claim is that the new plan violates the ‘spirit’ of the old one…In particular, plaintiffs claim is that the new plan violates the requirement that District 3 be a ‘balanced’ district.” Walker found that the plaintiffs’ argument failed on two counts. First, he said, the plaintiffs had failed to show that “the spirit,” as opposed to the actual terms of the consent degree, was “sufficiently ascertainable and articulable” to be enforceable. “No doubt the 1985 judgment was intended to address a history of racial discrimination in Jefferson County, and to that end, the practice of at-large elections was ended and single-member districts were drawn in a way to allow African-Americans to elect their candidates of choice,” Walker wrote. These were provisions that were clearly enforceable, the judge said. And certainly the consent decree overall was intended to increase African-American political power in Jefferson County, he said. “But that doesn’t mean that the consent decree requires (or perhaps even allows) this court to maximize such political power upon redistricting,” Walker wrote, citing case law to buttress his point and adding that the “the ‘scope of a consent decree must be discerned within its four corners,” and not by reference to what might satisfy the purposes of a party or the might-have-beens of a case. Secondly, he said, to the extent that the “spirit” of the decree indeed contained enforceable language that required a balanced district, the “plaintiffs haven’t shown that the new plan violates that provision.” “Plaintiffs have not shown that 40.8% — the percentage of the voting age population that was African-American in the ‘balanced’ district under the 1985 plan —is a magic number that must be satisfied under the markedly different demographic facts pre-sent today,” Walker wrote. “Of course 40.8% is better than 38.24% (the number under defendants’ plan) for purposes of maximizing African-American political strength, but plaintiffs haven’t shown that the difference would actually lead to loss of political opportunity. True, plaintiffs’ expert opines that plaintiffs’ plan ‘will afford African-Americans the best opportunity to elect their candidate of choice in a second district,’ but by that reasoning it’s hard to see why one should stop at 40.8%, or even 41.65%.” It’s noteworthy that the plan that the two boards adopted on April 1 puts the minority representation in District 3 at 40.29 percent, not quite the 43.80 percent that the plaintiffs wanted, but higher than the 39.33 percent of the 2013 map. Bottom line, Walker said, when a legislative body responded to an invalidated districting scheme with a proposed remedy, “a court may not thereupon simply substitute its judgment of a more equitable remedy for that of the legislative body; it may only consider whether the proffered remedial plan is legally unacceptable because it violates anew constitutional or statutory voting rights…” Wrote Walker in conclusion, “The consent decree doesn’t change anything, because (1), it doesn’t appear to require that there be a second ‘balanced’ district and (2), even if it does, plaintiffs have not shown that District 3 in defendants’ plan isn’t such a district. Plaintiffs’ version of District 3 is certainly better for purposes of maximizing African-American political power, but plaintiffs haven’t shown that the difference is one that violates the terms or spirit of the consent decree. Accordingly, it is ordered: Defendants’ proposed districting map…is accepted.” The plan that the Jefferson County Commission and School Board jointly submitted to the court on April 4 was in response to an earlier ruling by the court finding that the two boards’ district map was unconstitutional because it violated the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution. Which unconstitutionality issue the two boards remedied by eliminating the prison population from the count. The judge’s ruling resulted from a lawsuit that the plaintiffs filed against the two boards in 2015, alleging that inclusion of the prison population in the district map violated the ‘one person, one vote’ principle under the 14th Amendment.