ATLANTA (CN) — Attorneys for Alabama asked an 11th Circuit panel Friday to overturn a federal judge's refusal to dismiss an NAACP lawsuit claiming the state’s method of electing judges is unfair to black voters.
In September 2016, the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law filed a federal complaint on behalf of the Alabama State Conference of the NAACP alleging that black voters are not properly represented by the judges who preside over the state's highest courts.
In its amended January 2018 complaint, the NAACP pointed out that all 19 judges on Alabama's Supreme Court, Court of Criminal Appeals and Court of Civil Appeals are white.There have been no black judges elected to any of those three top state courts in over two decades and no black judicial candidate has ever won a statewide office without first being appointed by the governor, according to the lawsuit.
No black judge has ever served on either of the state appeals courts, the complaint states.
The NAACP alleges that black voters are prevented from"participating fully" in the election of Alabama's appellate judges because their votes are diluted by the votes of white citizens.
"Voting in Alabama is racially polarized: white voters as a group and African-American voters as a group consistently prefer different candidates. As a result, the at-large method of election deprives one-quarter of the state's voting-age population of the chance to elect judges of their choice to any of the nineteen seats on the three courts," the complaint states.
At-large elections do not limit votes on judicial candidates by geography and instead allow all eligible voters to vote on candidates regardless of where in the state they live.
The NAACP says voting patterns in elections for Alabama’s appellate courts “are racially polarized.”
“White bloc voting in support of their preferred candidates has repeatedly led to the defeat of candidates preferred by African-American voters," the lawsuit states.
The group asked the court to declare that Alabama's use of at-large elections for judgeships in its three highest courts is unconstitutional and violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. It also sought the implementation of a new election method consisting of single-member districts.
Chief U.S. District Judge W. Keith Watkins in the Middle District of Alabama denied the state’s motion to dismiss the complaint last year.
Watkins ruled that Alabama is not entitled to sovereign immunity from the claims, finding that the Voting Rights Act "explicitly" forbids states from imposing any"standard, practice or procedure" that "results in a denial or abridgement of the right of any citizen of the United States to vote" based on race.
"Such a restriction on state action would be toothless without the right to sue for a remedy," the ruling states.
Watkins allowed the case to move to a bench trial. He finished hearing evidence on Nov. 19 and has issued instructions for final briefs and oral arguments.
On Friday, attorneys representing Alabama asked a three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit to overturn Watkins' decision denying the motion to dismiss.
Attorney Edmund LaCour, Jr. said the Voting Rights Act "lacks specific text" that does away with state sovereign immunity.
"You need specific textual language to abrogate," LaCour said, urging the panel to conclude that Alabama’s reading of the statute is a "plausible interpretation."
When asked by U.S. Circuit Judge Elizabeth Branch what might happen to the lawsuit if the panel finds the state is entitled to sovereign immunity, LaCour responded that the NAACP could simply seek relief from the Alabama secretary of state.
But attorney Keith Harrison argued on behalf of the NAACP that bringing the lawsuit against Alabama was necessary to achieve any sort of significant relief.
"There are a number of circumstances in which a state agency may not be able to offer full relief. The secretary of state may not have full authority to implement a redistricting effort…It's important to sue the state, the VRA gives us the right to do so, and it may be critically important with respect to implementing rights under the VRA,” he said, abbreviating the Voting Rights Act.
Harrison added, "The district court properly held that Congress was unequivocal in abrogating sovereign immunity for states. The language in Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act could not be more clear. Congress intended Section 2 to be enforceable directly against the state.”
U.S. Circuit Judge Charles Wilson and Senior U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson joined Branch on the panel. It is unclear when the judges will issue a decision.