BILL MINOR: Mississippi again sits on the sidelines of redistricting

By Bill Minor

JACKSON – The 2010 decennial census figures are in, and neither Gov. Haley Barbour nor the Legislature acted to draw new legislative and Congressional districts reflecting population changes in advance of upcoming 2011 elections of state lawmakers and 2012 U.S. House members elections.
An Oct. 14 New York Times story assessing redistricting showed that more than a half dozen states have already completed their maps for 2012 U.S. House elections. Because the year for state lawmaker elections varies by state, the story had no definitive report on legislative remapping.
One thing appeared certain in the Times story: more states, especially those with Republican governors or GOP-controlled legislatures, are bypassing the U.S. Justice Department and going straight to the courts to adopt new congressional districts.
In the 2011 session, the Legislature’s two apportionment committee chairmen – Rep. Tommy Reynolds (D-Charleston) in the House and Sen. Terry Burton (R-Newton) in the Senate made a conscientious attempt to pass a legislative reapportionment. The key was to follow tradition of each branch reapportioning only itself.
Reynolds got his bill passed with bipartisan support. Burton, voicing his intent to adopt a Senate map that would get federal voting rights clearance and keep state redistricting out of the courts, crafted a measure redrawing several Senate districts and notably would create a black-majority district in the Hattiesburg area where a white Republican Senator was retiring.
Bryant threw a monkey wrench into the works by coming up with his own map that junked the Burton plan. On the Senate floor, Bryant’s bill got only 19 votes, while the Burton plan was passed with more than 30 votes. But, upset that Bryant broke the longstanding hands-off House-Senate agreement, Speaker Billy McCoy refused to name House conferees. thus ending any hope of a bill’s passage by session end.
For the time being, a three-judge federal court panel has ordered 2011 legislative elections using existing districts, with overtones that if the court has to draw a new plan, special elections in the new districts would be held next year. It could come into play that under the state Constitution’s Section 254, if there is a total deadlock on reapportionment it could trigger creation of a five-member commission including the Supreme Court chief justice, the state attorney general, the secretary of state, plus the House speaker and the Senate president pro tem to apportion legislative seats.
Back to Congressional remapping: So far, only a motion has been filed by state Republicans asking that a 2002 panel made up of Appeals Judge Grady Jolly and District Judges Henry Wingate and David Bramlette (all Republican appointees) be reconstituted and to tweak the existing four U.S. House districts.
The Fifth Circuit’s chief judge has yet to decide if the old panel stays or a new one is formed. Importantly, since 2002 two black judges, Circuit Judge James Graves, Jr. and District Judge Carlton Reeves, have been appointed by President Obama.
Columnist Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him through Ed Inman at edinman@earthlink.net.