By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal
JACKSON – Mississippi’s ongoing legislative redistricting fight has now been thrown into federal court.
The lawsuit was filed Thursday by NAACP’s Mississippi chapter and three other plaintiffs.
Hazlehurst attorney Carroll Rhodes, a veteran of redistricting battles, said the lawsuit is asking the federal court to draw new districts because the current map, based on the 2000 census, is outdated and so malapportioned that it would be a violation of the U.S. Constitution to run later this year in those districts.
Rhodes said that if the Legislature completes the redistricting task before the end of the session, the lawsuit would be moot. But it is beginning to look doubtful that a redistricting agreement will be reached before the scheduled end of the session in early April.
The federal lawsuit was filed Thursday afternoon, hours after the state Senate by a 29-18 margin invited conference.
In conference, three House members appointed by Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, and three Senate members appointed by Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant would try to hammer out a compromise.
But McCoy said he has no intention of responding to the Senate’s motion to invite conference. He said the Senate should not be involved in the House redistricting process or vice versa.
On Wednesday, he said the House would not participate in the conference process. After Thursday’s Senate vote, he reiterated that he would not appoint conferees. “I am firmer than ever,” he said.
McCoy said the House respected “the gentleman’s agreement” that one chamber would not interfere in the redistricting of the other house. He said the House accepted the Senate’s plan to redraw its districts without any interference and it would be unfair to the House to go to conference so the Senate could “meddle” in the House plan.
“We have a 50-year history of respecting each other’s independence when it comes to redistricting,” McCoy said after the Senate vote.
The Senate debated the issue of whether to concur or go to conference for about 90 minutes. Senate Elections Chair Terry Burton, R-Newton, made the motion to concur and end the contentious process, but Senate President Pro Tem Billy Hewes, R-Gulport, made the substitute motion to invite conference.
Hewes and others argued that it was the duty of each chamber to have input in the plan from the other house.
“I don’t think there is anything honorable about rubber-stamping something so consequential … setting representation for the next 10 years,” Hewes said.
Hewes and others contend the House majority Democratic leadership has drawn a plan unfair to Republicans.
“Everybody knows that Mississippi is a conservative state,” Hewes said “I believe the philosophical soul of the House is at stake.”
But others, including Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, said it was the alternative plan offered by House Republicans that is unfair and partisan. Bryan said that plan placed Democratic incumbents in districts with each other while the House Democratic plan did not do that to Republicans.
Many members in favor of concurring said that if the issue went to court, legislators could have to run twice – this year under the old districts and next year under the new plan.
Republican leaders, including Gov. Haley Barbour, Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, and various Republican-leaning groups, such as the Mississippi Manufacturers Association, have pressured senators to vote to go to conference.
The 27 Republicans in the chamber all voted to go to conference, as did two Democrats. Two Democrats were absent.
Bryan said there were members who would have voted to concur “if it would have affected the outcome,” but since there were not enough votes to prevail they voted to go to conference to avoid the possible political damage of bucking the Republican leadership.
Before the issue is finally settled in the Senate, a motion to reconsider the vote to go to conference will have to be resolved. That could occur this morning.