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Court Tosses Redistricting Challenge in Miss. Town

(CN) - The 5th Circuit struck down a challenge alleging that the 2004 redistricting in a Mississippi city created a majority white voting district near the University of Southern Mississippi and unfairly packed black voters into two of the city's five districts.

Black voters, including five church reverends, claimed that Hattiesburg officials redrew the city's districting plan in 2004 so that white university students would be included in Ward 1, which was 62.9 percent white before redistricting.

The city's black mayor, Johnny DuPree, was re-elected in 2005, along with two black city council members. The remaining three council members were white.

A group of voters challenged the 2004 redistricting plan, claiming it assigned mostly white USM students to Ward 1 and unnecessarily packed black voters into the two wards that were already majority black.

They said the city's plan violated the Voting Rights Act by effectively depriving black voters of the ability to elect representatives of their choice.

To bolster this claim, they said they presented three redistricting plans that allegedly would have created a black majority in Ward 1.

The district court rejected the first proposed alternative - excluding college students from the city's population base for districting purposes - because it was the only one presented with the case.

It then dismissed the case, and the plaintiffs appealed, arguing that the lower court should have considered the other two proposals.

But the New Orleans-based appeals court said the omission was the plaintiffs' fault, not the district court's.

"Unless the plaintiffs raised the two alternative approaches and supported them with evidence bearing on their legal adequacy," Judge Jerry E. Smith wrote, "the district court was under no obligation to consider them or to go through the meaningless formality of reciting their insufficiency."

The court affirmed dismissal of the case, saying the plaintiffs failed to meet the first precondition for Voting Rights Act claims, established in Thornburg v. Gingles: that the minority group was sufficiently large and geographically compact to constitute a majority in a single-member district.

The 5th Circuit also rejected the claim that the city's districting should have been based on the number of registered voters instead of the voting-age population.

"Even if that were true - and once more we doubt it - that is not the evidence of arbitrariness or discrimination that they were required to bring," Smith concluded.

Judge James Dennis dissented in part, saying he would have vacated and remanded in light of the dearth of factual findings about the plaintiffs' suggested redistricting plan.

He also objected to the majority's finding that, even if the plaintiffs had met the first Gingles precondition, the "totality of the circumstances" required dismissal.

"I disagree with the majority that the case law supports strongly disfavoring any particular set of figures under the Voting Rights Act, including voter registration figures, when the Supreme Court has expressly declined to do so because of the nuances present in each individual case," Dennis wrote.

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