BOBBY HARRISON: Election ruling appears in conflict with precedent


Judges are, after all, human, and humans are allowed to changed their mind. A change of mind is essentially what the federal courts did as it relates to legislative redistricting in Mississippi.

In 1991, instead of allowing legislators to serve for four years under an old redistricting plan that did not reflect population shifts found by the 1990 decennial census, a three-judge federal court panel ordered legislators to run in back-to-back years.

They ran in 1991 under the old, malapportioned districts that violated the one man, one vote mandates of the state and federal constitutions. But one year later they were forced to run again under newly drawn districts that all had essentially the same number of people.

Jump ahead 20 years to 2011, and the courts reached a much different decision. That year a three-judge federal panel ruled again that legislators could run in the old, malapportioned districts. But the courts did not force another round of elections during the same four-year term under newly drawn districts.

Every other 10-year period the state faces the compact timeframe where the census data is made available early in 01 and legislative elections are slated for later that year.

It does not give legislators much time to act if their goal is to have newly drawn districts in place for the legislative elections.

In both 1991 and 2011 they missed that goal.

In 1991, the goal was missed because the U.S. Department Justice rejected the redistricting plan approved by the Legislature on the grounds it diluted black voting strength. After that rejection, the issue ended up before a three-judge federal panel that prodded the competing legislative factions to develop a compromise. When a compromise could not be reached in time for the 1991 legislative elections, the panel ordered the elections to be held under the old plan.

In 2011, the Legislature was unable to come up with a redistricting plan because of partisan bickering, throwing the issue before another three-judge panel.

The panel again ordered the elections to be held under the malapportioned districts, but this time they did not mandate a new round of elections under newly drawn districts.

The NAACP challenged that decision, saying legislators should not be allowed to serve a full four-year term under districts that violate the one-man, one-vote principle.

Monday the Supreme Court rejected the NAACP without comment.

While there are differences between the issues in 1991 and 2001, the logical conclusion, based solely on what happened in 1991, is that the courts would have ordered a new round of elections this time under new properly apportioned districts.

That was the thinking of just about everyone after the Legislature was unable to agree on a plan in 2011.

I am far from being an attorney, but it appears the ruling that legislators could serve a full four-year term under the malapportioned districts conflicts with numerous past court rulings.

But as stated, courts, like people in everyday life, can come to different conclusions.

There are a few subtle differences between 1991 and 2001. In 1991, there were members, particularly African American legislators who wanted a second round of elections, knowing that the results would be a significant increase in the number of minority lawmakers.

This time around, with the expense of campaign, hardly any legislator was advocating for a second round of elections.

And another key difference is that this time around Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann argued that Section 254 of the state Constitution grants legislators two years to redistrict after the census, meaning they had until the 2012 session – not the 2011 session. The federal judges took into account that state constitutional provision more so in 2011 than in 1991.

The result is that after the 2030 census, based on the ruling this time around, the Legislature will not have to rush into a redistricting process in the 2031 session. They can work through the 2032 session.

I can hardly wait to see if the court changes its mind again.

BOBBY HARRISON is the Daily Journal’s Capitol Bureau Chief. Contact him at bobby.harrison@journalinc.com or call (601) 353-3119.

Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal