(CN) – A federal judge said Wednesday factors such as the decline of the Alabama Democratic Party explain why the Alabama Supreme Court is made up of all white, all Republican judges – not violations of the Voting Rights Act.
Four black voters and the Alabama State Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People sued the state in September 2016 saying it had been 15 years since a black justice had served on the Alabama Supreme Court or the state’s two appellate courts.
Writing in a brick of a 210-page opinion, Judge W. Keith Watkins, a President George W. Bush appointee, said the voters and the NAACP did not prove the state-wide elections used to pick Alabama’s appellate judges since 1868 diluted the voting power of black citizens.
Currently, black voters make up approximately 26% of Alabama’s electorate. In past elections, voting has been racially polarized, with black voters favoring Democratic candidates.
“There are reasons other than race that account for election losses of candidates favored by African-American voters in appellate judicial elections in Alabama,” Watkins wrote. “The recent decline of the Alabama Democratic Party and a failure of black-preferred candidates to compete generally are two primary culprits. Plaintiffs presented no evidence that race is the reason for the Party’s current failings or the reason why black-preferred candidates are not running for statewide appellate judge seats”
In November 2018, the bench trial lasted six days.
The voters and the NAACP said the state’s method of election judges violated section two of the Voting Rights Act, which required them to prove the system was not “equally open” to black justices and hindered black voters’ rights “on account of race.” They did not need to prove the discrimination intentional.
They asked the judge to tell the state to find a new method of electing judges. They proposed nine districts in the state each sending a justice to the circular courtroom sitting high in the Alabama Justice Center in Montgomery.
The State of Alabama argued the voting divides were more partisan than racial and the state-wide election for judges rendering decisions that touch every corner of the state would keep them accountable.
In his decision, Watkins pointed to the special 2017 election that selected Democrat Doug Jones as U.S. Senator. An overwhelming number of black voters supported Jones.
“Plaintiffs simply have not shown that, in present-day Alabama, there are any barriers keeping African Americans from participating in the political process as voters,” Watkins wrote. “The level of black participation in the electoral process is not depressed.”
Currently, 34 states choose judges through some kind of at-large election, Watkins wrote.
Over the course of its history, Alabama has only elected two black justices to its appellate courts.
“African Americans have served at the highest reaches of state government, and they can do so again,” Watkins wrote. “There is a time for everything. Lest it be forgotten, Oscar Adams was appointed to the Supreme Court two years before George Wallace’s last election as governor, and Justice Oscar Adams ran and won in 1982 on the same ballot with George Wallace.”
Watkins’ decision comes a day after the Eleventh Circuit ruled on Alabama’s early appeal in the case, which said it had immunity from the suit. The appellate court disagreed and said the suit could move forward, pointing out the success of the Voting Rights Act came from private litigants.
In a statement congratulating the attorneys presenting the State of Alabama’s case, Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall said, “Alabama’s statewide system of electing appellate judges was first approved more than one hundred years ago and is similar to election methods used in other States.”
Meanwhile, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which helped represent some of the voters in the suit said they were reviewing the decision and still deciding what to do next.
Ezra Rosenberg, the co-director of the Voting Rights Project for the Lawyers’ Committee, said “[F]or the indefinite future, the State will continue to elect judges to its three highest courts by way of a method that diminishes the opportunity for African Americans to elect candidates of their choice.”
In the 2020 elections for Associate Justice on the Alabama Supreme Court, incumbent Judge Brad Mendheim Jr., a Republican, is running unopposed. Judge Greg Shaw is facing a challenge from a fellow Republican, state Sen. Cam Ward.
The Alabama Democratic Party has not put forward any candidates for the Alabama Supreme Court.