11th Cir. Remands Voting Rights Case in Georgia

     (CN) – An NAACP lawsuit challenging alleged racial bias in school board and county commission elections in Georgia must be remanded to the district court for trial, the 11th Circuit ruled.
     The Georgia NAACP, along with its Fayette County branch and ten individual voters, sued both commissioners and the board of education of the suburban county south of Atlanta in Federal Court. Their lawsuit contends the at-large election system employed in Fayette County violates the Voting Rights Act.
     “At the time this suit commenced, no African-American candidate had ever been elected to either the Fayette County Board of Commissioners or the Fayette County Board of Education,” U.S. Circuit Judge Charles Wilson wrote in the Jan. 7 opinion.
     The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the NAACP, “finding the at-large election method used by both the BOC and BOE resulted in impermissible vote dilution.”
     However, the lower court failed to provide the school board with notice it was “considering awarding summary judgment against it,” and it also wrongly omitted certain evidence presented by the defendants, while wrongly admitting evidence presented by the NAACP, Wilson wrote.
     Because of the procedural errors, the 11th Circuit vacated the lower court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the plaintiffs, and remanded the case for further proceedings.
     The system that the NAACP challenged in Fayette County required that a candidate “win a general election in the county” to be elected to either board.
     According to Wilson’s opinion, less than 20 percent of the population in Fayette County, which is southwest of Atlanta, is African-American. Furthermore, the African-American population is “largely concentrated in the northern half” of the county, but candidates had to win “a majority of the votes from the county as a whole” to be elected.
     Based on both the geographic marginalization of the African-American community and the “racially polarized” nature of the voting in the county, the three-judge panel concluded Fayette County’s voting system effectively meant that “no African-American would be able to participate in the political process through election to the BOC or the BOE, nor would African American voters be able to elect representatives of their choice to either entity,”
     After granting summary judgment in favor of the NAACP, the district court engaged an advisor to help resolve the election problems. A subsequent order enjoined the boards from conducting at-large voting and adopted the court’s remedial plan. Each board appealed separately, though they’re both addressed in the Jan. 7 opinion.
     In the ruling, Wilson noted that the NAACP did not include the school board in its motion for summary judgment. Further, the court “committed reversible error when it did not provide sufficient notice to the BOE prior to its sua sponte entry of summary judgment” against it.
     The 11th Circuit also concluded that summary judgment against the BOC was inappropriate “because such a judgment required the district court to weigh the evidence and make credibility determinations.”
     In remanding the case, Wilson ended with both graciousness and a nudge, pointing out the lower court, “may proceed to trial if it so desires,” but adding that a trial is certainly warranted, “particularly given our findings that the record below merely wants for the evidentiary determinations that summary judgment does not permit.”

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