Oral arguments heard in district voting appeal

Oral arguments heard in district voting appeal

Oral arguments in the appeal of Fayette County’s district voting system took place Wednesday.

Attorneys for the Fayette County Board of Commissioners and Fayette County Board of Education each gave their cases before a three judge panel at the U.S. 11th District Court of Appeals. Both entities hope to have the decision of District Judge Timothy Batten overturned, thus doing away with district voting and restoring the at-large voting system.

Attorneys for the NAACP argued for the court to uphold Batten’s decision.

Batten issued summary judgment in favor of the NAACP at the district level, saying the county’s at-large system violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act and prevented black candidates from being elected to either board.

The law firm Strickland, Brockington, and Lewis represent the board of commissioners in the case. In their argument before the court, they focused primarily on how the districts were drawn to create a “majority-minority” district as the law requires in these cases.

The county argued a district with more than 50-percent black population could only be drawn by a “bizarrely-shaped” district. Essentially, they argued that district voting could only be legally justified with a gerrymandered map that was specifically drawn along racial lines and that still only barely consisted of majority black residents.

“Instead of limiting Section 2 to require the creation of only naturally occurring majority-minority districts, the District Court’s decision requires the creation of any majority-minority district that can possibly be drawn,” county attorneys said in their brief.

In oral argument, the county’s attorney also noted that few black candidates had ever run for the Board of Commissioners and none since 2006, excluding Pota Coston, whose candidacy came after Batten’s decision. It was noted by one judge that the outcome of November’s election can’t be considered as relevant in the case as the court can only review the facts that were included in Batten’s decision.

The NAACP’s attorney refuted the argument that Fayette’s fifth district was inappropriately drawn, saying the district’s design satisfied a legal standard for being sufficiently “geographically compact.”

The standard goes back to Supreme Court Case Thornburg v. Gingles. In oral arguments the attorneys frequently mentioned the “Gingles” standard, though the two sides are disputing whether the district map in Fayette satisfies that standard for being “sufficiently compact.”

Interestingly, one judge noted that “Section 2” cases are rarely decided upon summary judgment, as this case was. The attorney for the NAACP granted that summary judgment in these cases was rare, but said the county had not put forth much contradictory evidence on the facts in dispute.

The judge asked whether the plaintiffs (NAACP) wouldn’t be “in a better position” after a trial and suggested the “compactness” issue seems to be a matter of fact that would need to be litigated in court.

The Board of Education is mounting a somewhat different argument. The fact that the county and school district were lumped together as co-defendants in the case caused a number of problems. At one point, the school district actually voted to settle with the NAACP and make its own redistricted map, but this was invalidated by Judge Batten because the county, listed a co-defendent, had not agreed.

The school district’s attorney said in oral argument that they had been “blindsided” by Batten’s move for summary judgment and not given any opportunity to respond. He said the school district was simply lumped in with the county and that, in fact, there had been “no motion for summary judgment in this case made against us.”

The NAACP attorney refuted this version of events, saying the Board of Education’s attorneys had “failed to develop any contradictory evidence. They did nothing to alert the district court that summary judgment was inappropriate. They failed to develop any evidence to disprove points of fact. It is simply not the case the Board of Education was blindsided by the court.”

The school district’s attorney also argued that the claim that black candidates wouldn’t have been able to get elected in the past was false. He said the county breaks down much more along political lines, favoring Republicans, than along racial lines in terms of voting.

“If a black candidate had run as a Republican and was just as good as white candidate, they would have won,” he argued.

The school district is also arguing the court overstepped its authority by “arbitrarily taking away the power of the Board of Eduction to redistrict itself and transferring that power to the Georgia General Assembly.. This clearly exceeded the scope of what the court was empowered to do under any interpretation of the law and the powers of an Article III court.”

The school district also is making a similar argument as the county, which is that a majority-minority district cannot be established without drawing it along racial lines.

One judge asked that the attorney grant the fact that such a district can be drawn.

“Not constitutionally,” the attorney responded.

Now comes what may be a long wait for the court to return a decision. It is possible that the court could decide to return the case to the District level for a trial, which would further prolong the matter and would continue to ratchet up legal fees.

Josh Akeman

Josh Akeman is the managing editor of the Fayette County News, Today in Peachtree City, and East Coweta Journal. He is a graduate of Fayette County High School and the University of Georgia.