On Thursday, October 26, 2023, a Georgia federal judge issued a 516-page opinion that has already prompted the Governor to call a Special Session of the Georgia General Assembly to redraw the maps for Georgia's 14 congressional districts and state House and Senate districts. The opinion may compel realignment of political forces across the northwestern part of the state as a new map will likely create a majority-Black district northwest of Atlanta.
Across the South, federal judges are hearing challenges to redistricting maps adopted after the 2020 census. In many cases, the new maps either failed to account for population shifts among voters of color or increased likely Republican seats in Congress and state legislative bodies. So far, the challengers have succeeded, most notably in the recent United States Supreme Court opinion in Allen v. Milligan, 599 U.S. 1 (2023). There, the Supreme Court rejected Alabama's legislatively adopted maps, holding that the maps violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 because they did not allow for the creation of a second congressional district in Alabama in which Black voters had a reasonable opportunity to elect a person of color.
While the focus here is on the Georgia redistricting case, other cases in Louisiana, Texas, and South Carolina are working their way through the courts–with others likely to follow.
Plaintiffs filed the Georgia case on December 30, 2021, and it was assigned to the Honorable Steve C. Jones, a United States District Judge for the Northern District of Georgia. On February 28, 2022, following a six-day hearing and with the benefit of thousands of pages of briefing and evidence, Judge Jones denied Plaintiffs' request for a preliminary injunction. Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. v. Raffensperger, 587 F. Supp. 3d 1222 (N.D. Ga. 2022). The Court concluded Plaintiffs were likely to ultimately prove the redistricting was unlawful but declined to grant relief to avoid potential disruption of upcoming elections. More specifically, the Court held that Georgia likely violated the Voting Rights Act by not providing a majority-Black congressional district in the area west of Atlanta, in failing to allow two additional majority-Black State Senate districts in the southeast Atlanta metro area, and failing to add two majority-Black house districts in metro Atlanta and one in southwest Georgia.
The parties continued with discovery and summary judgment briefing, and, on July 17, 2023, the Court denied the State defendants' motion for summary judgment. A bench trial began on September 5, 2023, and lasted eight trial days. During the trial, the parties presented 20 witnesses and hundreds of pages of exhibits.
In yesterday's voluminous and detailed opinion, the Court held that Georgia violated the Voting Rights Act because “in certain areas of the State, the political process is not equally open to Black voters” and “Black voters still have less opportunity to partake in the political process in the area than white voters.” As support for its decision, the court stressed that Georgia's population growth in the last decade “was attributable to the minority population, however, the number of minority-Black congressional and legislative districts remained the same.” The Court continued: “Although the Court commends the progress that Georgia has made since 1965, when weighing the Senate Factors, the Court finds that the Enacted Congressional Plan dilutes Black voting power in west-Metro Atlanta.” The Court's analysis of the evidence presented at trial resulted in a finding that “a majority of the totality of the circumstances evidence weighs in favor of finding a Section 2 violation in the proposed districts in metro Atlanta.”
The case is a companion to a case to be heard by a three-judge panel beginning November 13, 2023. That case, Ga. Conf. of the NAACP v. State of Georgia, No. 1:21-cv-5338, asserts that the maps as drawn violate the Voting Rights Act, 52 U.S.C. § 10301, and the United States Constitution. Because of the constitutional challenge, 28 U.S.C. § 2284 directs a three-judge panel to conduct the trial. The three judges are: Honorable Steve C. Jones, the Northern District of Georgia judge who issued yesterday's opinion, Honorable Steven D. Grimberg, also a judge in the Northern District of Georgia, and Honorable Elizabeth L. Branch, a member of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit from Georgia.
The importance of the decision to the allocation of voters into districts cannot be over-emphasized and may alter the balance of power under the Gold Dome.
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