Alabama Gerrymandering Trial Quietly Wraps Up

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (CN) – The weeklong trial to determine if congressional districts Alabama drew in 2011 were racially gerrymandered ended as quietly as it began: the gallery of the federal courtroom in Birmingham near empty of spectators, no closing or opening arguments.

But it didn’t mean the trial did not cover vast amounts of ground.

During a hearing after the trial had recessed Thursday evening, Chief Justice Karon Bowdre standing beside her bench told the attorneys she “thoroughly enjoyed this trip through Alabama history.”

The Hugo L. Black U.S. Courthouse in Birmingham, Alabama.

The appointee of George W. Bush told the attorneys she agreed with one of the plaintiffs in the case, LaKeisha Chestnut of Mobile, when she said she wanted unity. “It’s something we all have to be working for,” Bowdre said.

In June 2018, a group of black Alabama voters with the backing of the National Redistricting Foundation sued Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill, saying the state’s congressional districts diluted the voting power of black voters by “packing” them in the 7th Congressional District and “cracking” them across three others.

During the trial, testimony told a grand sweep of Alabama history and geography: The first Mardi Gras celebrations in communities along the coast, enfranchised black voters during Reconstruction casting ballots for the Republican Party, the racist 1901 constitutional convention designed to strip from blacks Alabamians the right to vote, the fire hoses and dogs set upon civil rights marchers in Birmingham.

Now, the court will make a decision that will have implications for Alabama’s future.

Bowdre said going into the trial she will not issue injunctive relief ordering Alabama to toss the map for the upcoming 2020 election. Still, declaratory relief is still on the table, which could be used as guidance when Alabama redraws the districts after the 2020 Census.

The plaintiffs in the case, represented by the firm Perkins Coie, presented four proposed congressional maps that created a second district made up of a majority of minority voters in Alabama’s black belt. It would give more black voters in Alabama the opportunity to elect the candidates of their choice, the Perkins Coie attorneys argued.

It’s a plan that Rep. Terri Sewell, a Democrat who represents Selma, portions of Birmingham and Montgomery in the 7th District, applauded when the suit was first filed.

The state argued the proposed congressional maps were racial gerrymanders. In many of the proposed plans, the state argued the plaintiff’s proposals split the city of Mobile in order to net its black voters into a new majority-minority district.

That split would be to the detriment of the city’s representation in Washington, D.C., testified Rep. Bradley Byrne, a Republican and candidate for U.S. Senate, on Thursday.

Bowdre said she was looser from the bench than if she was overseeing a jury trial. Often, she stopped to asked clarification questions about statistics. The reoccurring joke was that lawyers can’t do math.

On Tuesday, Peyton McCrary, a historian who had worked with the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division to enforce the Civil Rights Act, said Alabama’s history has affected its current circumstances today. For instance, educational disparities have effects lasting decades, among them influencing voter registration.

“There has never been complete parity in political participation rates in Alabama,” McCrary said.

M.V. “Trey” Hood III, a political scientist professor with the University of Georgia testified Friday morning on behalf of the state.

As Deputy Attorney General James Davis examined him, Hood explained that according to his analysis, two of the four proposed redistricting plans offered by the plaintiffs actually create districts where the black voting age population dropped below 50%.

For the purpose of his research, Hood only counts a person as black if they are a single race, not mixed.

Hood agreed when Davis asked him if turnout was relevant when determining if blacks could elect candidates of their choice.

Hood testified that from 2010 to 2018, 55.5% of white voters turned out in an average election opposed to 50.7% of black voters.

The only exception was during the 2012 election with then President Barack Obama on the ballot, where 65.4% of white Alabama voters turned out to 66.3% of black voters.

Reducing the percentage of the black voting age population in the 7th District closer to 50% –  like what might happen as part of the plaintiff’s proposed congressional districts – would decrease the likelihood black voters would be able to elect a candidate of their choice, Hood testified.

When Perkins Coie attorney Abha Khanna cross examined Hood, the exchange at one point focused on which voters should be counted as black. Given that former President Barack Obama had a black father and white mother, he wouldn’t qualify as black, asked Khanna.

“Not according to that definition,” Hood said.

Khanna pointed out black Americans have a shared history of discrimination. Hood also agreed with her that based on the increase in voter turnout in 2012, a viable black candidate on the ballot could affect voter turnout. A whole host of factors affect turnout, Hood added.

Under cross examination, Hood said a partisan shift happened after the passage of the Voting Rights Act as re-enfranchised black voters aligned with the Democratic Party in the 1960s. That started a slow shift as white southerners aligned with the Republican Party. In 2010, the Republican Party gained control of the Alabama statehouse.

When the last testimony concluded, Bowdre asked the attorneys to submit post trial briefs in the coming weeks.

She said she expected her decision will be appealed.

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