The Mississippi NAACP is asking federal judges to redraw the state House and Senate districts that were approved by the Justice Department last month. The group also wants the judges to set new legislative elections in 2013, two years ahead of the normal schedule.
The state chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People filed its lawsuit Saturday, saying the legislative lines approved by the Justice Department "result in discrimination against African-American voters" because too few majority-black districts were drawn by the Republican-controlled House and Senate.
"Although the 2012 legislatively enacted Senate and House plans comply with the one-person, one-vote principle of the 14th Amendment's Equal Protection Clause, the 2012 Senate plan dilutes black voting strength and the House plan does as well," the NAACP argues in its lawsuit.
Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves said Monday that the districts approved by the Justice Department are fair, and he opposes both a redrawing of those districts and a new round of elections.
"The Senate redistricting plan passed by an overwhelming margin, increased the number of majority-minority districts and was swiftly approved by President Obama's Department of Justice last month. Once again, this unusual lawsuit shows the Mississippi NAACP is out of touch, and I am confident the Senate plan will be approved by the federal court," Reeves said.
Mississippi has 122 state House districts and 52 Senate districts. Legislative maps are redrawn after each Census to reflect population changes that occurred during the previous decade.
In 2011, the Democratic-controlled House and the Republican-controlled Senate did not agree on redistricting plans. Republicans won a majority in both chambers in the November 2011 election, and the two chambers agreed on redistricting plans in the spring of 2012.
Because of Mississippi's history of racial discrimination, the Voting Rights Act requires the state to get federal approval for any election law changes. When the Justice Department approved the Mississippi redistricting plans Sept. 14, the department said its approval did not prevent anyone from suing to try to block the maps from being used.
The NAACP says in its lawsuit that the plans legislators approved in 2012 contain fewer majority-black districts than the plans the NAACP proposed in 2011.
The 2011 elections used legislative districts that had been in place for a decade, and lawmakers elected in that cycle are scheduled to hold those seats until 2015.
The NAACP contends, and state officials agree, that the districts used in 2011 did not reflect population shifts shown in the 2010 Census. The NAACP argues that black people "suffered irreparable harm in 2011 by being forced to vote in elections where their votes were underrepresented."
"Federal courts have held that Legislators elected to office in grossly mal-apportioned unconstitutional districts cannot serve a full four-year term when the plaintiffs requested and were denied pre-election relief," according to the lawsuit.
The case is before a three-judge panel of Judge E. Grady Jolly of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and U.S. District Judges Tom S. Lee and Louis Guirola Jr.
Several Democrats have said they thought they were treated unfairly in the plans drawn by Republican leaders.
Republican Rep. Bill Denny of Jackson, who led the House redistricting effort, said the districts met the required standards: They're compact, they uphold communities with common interests and they don't weaken black voting strength.
Mississippi's population is 37 percent black, and its voting-age population is 35 percent black.
The Senate approved its map on a 46-5 vote May 2, with one Democrat absent. The map has 15 majority-black Senate districts, or 29 percent. When federal judges drew the Senate map a decade ago, it had 12 majority-black seats, or 23 percent. Between 2000 and 2010, population changes resulted in one more district becoming majority black, bringing the total to 13 seats, or 25 percent, as legislators embarked on drawing new maps.
House members voted 70-49 for their chamber's plan on April 26, with 63 Republicans and seven Democrats supporting it. The House plan increases the number of districts with a majority-black voting age population from 41 to 42. That's 34 percent of House districts.
Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann responded to the lawsuit:
"It has always been my position the Mississippi Legislature should be able to redistrict itself and not the federal courts. The Mississippi House and Senate adopted fair redistricting plans that even received approval by the Department of Justice. We believe the 2011 elections were constitutional, and our legislators should be able to serve their full four year terms. To hold legislative elections outside of the normal four year cycle would prove costly and unproductive for our state. Particularly in these lean budget times, I cannot be in favor of the additional expense."