ATLANTA (AP) — A federal judge ruled Thursday that some of Georgia’s congressional, Senate and House districts were drawn in a racist manner, ordering the state to draw an additional majority-black district .
U.S. District Judge Steve Jones, in a 516-page order, also ordered the state to designate two new black-majority districts in the 56-member Georgia State Senate and five new districts to black majority in its House of Representatives, which has 180 members.
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Jones ordered the Republican-majority General Assembly and Georgia’s governor to correct the maps by Dec. 8, saying he would redraw the districts if lawmakers did not do so. Hours after the decision, Gov. Brian Kemp called for a special session to begin Nov. 29 to redraw congressional and legislative districts, although a spokesperson for the governor said that it was a timing decision and that it did not mean the Republican opposed an appeal. .
Jones’ ruling follows an eight-day trial in September in which plaintiffs argued that black voters still struggle with opposition from white voters and need federal help to get a fair chance, while that the state argued that court intervention on behalf of black voters was unnecessary. .
“Georgia has made great strides since 1965 toward voting equality,” Jones wrote. “However, the evidence presented to this court shows that Georgia has not reached the point where the political process provides openness and equal opportunity for all.”
The Georgia case is part of a wave of litigation after the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year upheld its interpretation of the Voting Rights Act, rejecting a challenge to the law by Alabama.
Courts in Alabama and Florida recently ruled that Republican-led legislatures unfairly diluted the voting power of black residents. Legal challenges against congressional districts are also underway in Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, New Mexico, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Utah.
Jones wrote that he would not allow the 2024 elections to be held in districts he deemed “illegal.” That would require a special session, as lawmakers are not expected to reconvene until January.
Jones’ order explicitly calls for an appeal from the state, and such an appeal could slow down that timeline, and perhaps even allow the cards to be used again next year. The U.S. Supreme Court has already ruled that judges should not require districting changes too close to an election.
A spokesman for Republican Attorney General Chris Carr, whose office defended the plans in court, declined to comment, saying lawyers were still reading the ruling. Other Republicans want to keep fighting.
“The majority party has gone to great lengths to craft maps that are legal, fair, compact, and that hold communities of interest together,” said state Senate Republicans led by Majority Leader Steve Gooch of Dahlonega in a statement. “Obviously, we strongly disagree with the decision and hope that all legal options will be explored to maintain the maps as passed by the legislature.”
A new map could move one of Georgia’s 14 congressional seats from Republican to Democratic control. GOP lawmakers redrew the congressional map from an 8-6 Republican majority to a 9-5 Republican majority in 2021. Jones ruled that lawmakers cannot eliminate minority opportunity districts elsewhere when they were redrawing the maps.
“I applaud the district court’s decision ordering Georgia to draw maps that comply with the Voting Rights Act,” said Gloria Butler, state Senate minority leader and Stone Mountain Democrat. “We look forward to helping pass maps that are more equitable and compliant with federal law.”
Orders to draw new legislative districts could reduce Republican majorities in the House of Representatives, where the Republican Party has a 102-78 advantage, and in the state Senate, with a 33-23 advantage. On their own, these changes are unlikely to lead to a Democratic takeover.
Jones wrote that he conducted a “thorough and sifted review” of the evidence in the case before concluding that Georgia violated the Voting Rights Act by enacting the current congressional and legislative maps.
The judge wrote that despite the fact that the entire increase in the state’s population between 2010 and 2020 was attributable to growth in non-white populations, the number of congressional and state Senate districts at black majority remained the same.
This echoes a key argument of the plaintiffs, as one of their lawyers pointed out after the ruling.
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“In 2021, the General Assembly ignored Georgia’s diversification over the past decade and adopted a state legislative map that blatantly diluted the electoral strength of Black voters,” said Rahul Garabadu, attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia, in a statement. “Today’s decision charts a path forward to correct this grave injustice ahead of the 2024 election cycle.
Jones wrote in a footnote that his order “in no way states or implies that the General Assembly or Georgia Republicans are racist.” The Voting Rights Act does not require him to conclude that the challenged maps were adopted to discriminate against black voters or that the Legislature is racist, he wrote. “Nothing in this order should be construed to indicate otherwise.”