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Lawsuit claiming Mississippi Supreme Court districts are discriminatory is set for August

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Lawsuit claiming Mississippi Supreme Court districts are discriminatory is set for August

Jun 04, 2024 | 5:30 am ET
By Bobby Harrison
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Lawsuit claiming Mississippi Supreme Court district are discriminatory is set for August
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Photo courtesy of Mississippi Today

A federal trial challenging the constitutionality of Mississippi‘s Supreme Court districts is scheduled to begin Aug. 5 in Oxford.

The lawsuit, filed in April 2022, alleges that the three districts from which the state’s nine Supreme Court justices are elected dilute Black voter strength. The lawsuit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Mississippi, the Southern Poverty Law Center and private law firms on behalf of a group of Black Mississippians including state Sen. Derrick Simmons, D-Greensville.

The lawsuit will be heard by U.S. Northern District Judge Sharion Aycock.

“Mississippi’s population is almost 40 percent Black—a greater proportion than any other state in the nation,” the lawsuit states. “Yet in the 100 years that Mississippi has elected its Supreme Court by popular vote, there have been a total of only four Black justices ever to sit on that body.”

The defendants – the state Election Commission consisting of Gov. Tate Reeves, Attorney General Lynn Fitch and Secretary of State Michael Watson — deny that the districts are discriminatory. But they do concede that they have not been redrawn by the Legislature since 1987.

Simmons, who is Senate minority leader, said that this past session the Legislature did consider the redrawing of the trial court districts – both chancery and circuit – to adhere to population shifts revealed by the 2020 Census. But that effort was postponed until 2025 and Simmons said there was never an effort during the 2024 session to redraw the Supreme Court districts.

All four Black Mississippians who have served on the Supreme Court were first appointed to the post by governors and then later won election to the post as the incumbent. All four represented the Central District.

In 2020, Court of Appeals Justice Latrice Westbrooks attempted to become the first Black Mississippi to be elected to the Supreme Court before first being appointed by a governor. She lost a close election to Kenny Griffis, who was running for the post for the first time after being appointed to a vacant slot on the court by then-Gov. Phil Bryant.

The three Supreme Court districts also are used to elect the three-member Public Service Commission and Transportation Commission.

Both the Central District Transportation commissioner, Willie Simmons, and the Public Service commissioner, De’Keither Stamps, are black. Stamps won election to the post in 2023 after losing a close election to the post in 2019. Simmons was elected to his second term on the Transportation Commission in 2023.

At the same time the lawsuit involving the Supreme Court districts is ongoing, a separate case is being considered claiming Mississippi’s legislative districts dilute Black voter strength.

The lawsuit says the state Legislature’s redrawing of the House and Senate districts in 2022 to match population shifts gleaned from the 2020 Census “packed” Black voters in a limited number of districts to dilute their electoral impact.

Carroll Rhodes of Hazlehurst, a longtime civil rights attorney who is involved in the lawsuit, has said the new legislative districts violate federal law and the U.S. Constitution by “packing” Black voters in a smaller number of districts to dilute their strength.

Rhodes and others claim that a new redistricting plan could generate more Black majority districts in addition to increasing the number of African Americans in other districts to provide them more impact in those.