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Federal judge rules Georgia’s district lines violated Voting Rights Act and must be redrawn

Washington — A federal judge ruled Thursday that some of Georgia’s congressional, state Senate and state House districts were drawn in a racially discriminatory manner and ordered state lawmakers to draw an additional Black-majority congressional district.

U.S. District Judge Steve Jones, in a 516-page order, also said the state must draw two new Black-majority districts in Georgia’s 56-member state Senate and five new Black-majority districts in its 180-member state House.

Jones ordered Georgia’s Republican-controlled General Assembly and GOP governor to take action before Dec. 8, saying he wouldn’t permit 2024 elections to go forward under the current maps. That would require a special session, as lawmakers aren’t scheduled to meet again until January. If the state fails to enact remedial plans by his deadline that provide Black voters the opportunity to elect their favored candidates, Jones said the court will draw or adopt its own maps.

The judge’s ruling

“After conducting a thorough and sifting review of the evidence in this case, the Court finds that the State of Georgia violated the Voting Rights Act when it enacted its congressional and legislative maps,” Jones wrote. “The Court commends Georgia for the great strides that it has made to increase the political opportunities of Black voters in the 58 years since the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Despite these great gains, the Court determines that in certain areas of the State, the political process is not equally open to Black voters.”

The judge sought to dispel concerns about the Dec. 8 deadline he set for the new maps, writing that he is “confident that the General Assembly can accomplish its task” by then.

“The General Assembly enacted the Plans quickly in 2021; the Legislature has been on notice since at least the time that this litigation was commenced nearly 22 months ago that new maps might be necessary; the General Assembly already has access to an experienced cartographer; and the General Assembly has an illustrative remedial plan to consult,” he wrote.

Jones’ ruling follows a September trial in which the plaintiffs argued that Black voters are still fighting opposition from White voters and need federal help to get a fair shot. The state argued court intervention on behalf of Black voters wasn’t needed.

The move could shift 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.

Rulings in other states

The Georgia case is part of a wave of litigation after the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year stood behind its interpretation of the Voting Rights Act, rejecting a challenge to the law by Alabama.

Courts in Alabama and Florida ruled recently that Republican-led legislatures had unfairly diluted the voting power of Black residents. Legal challenges to congressional districts are also ongoing in Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, New Mexico, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Utah.

In the Alabama dispute, a three-judge district court panel said it was “deeply troubled” after the state redrew its map following the Supreme Court’s June decision but failed to provide a remedy for the likely Voting Rights Act violation. Alabama Republicans sought emergency relief from the Supreme Court again, but the justices declined their request to use the redrawn congressional map in upcoming elections.

New voting lines selected by the judges in October give the state a second district where Black voters make up nearly 50% of the voting-age population.

Orders to draw new legislative districts could narrow Republican majorities in the state House and Senate. But on their own, those changes are unlikely to lead to a Democratic takeover.

Jones, who sits on the federal district court in Atlanta, reiterated in his opinion that Georgia has made progress since 1965 “towards equality in voting. However, the evidence before this Court shows that Georgia has not reached the point where the political process has equal openness and equal opportunity for everyone.”

He noted that despite the fact that all of the state’s population growth over the last decade was attributable to the minority population, the number of congressional and legislative districts with a Black majority remained the same.

That echoes a key contention of the plaintiffs, who argued repeatedly that the state added nearly 500,000 Black residents between 2010 and 2020 but drew no new Black-majority state Senate districts and only two additional Black-majority state House districts. They also said Georgia should have another Black majority congressional district.

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