A federal appeals court told Mississippi lawmakers to redraw a state Senate district where a judge found that black residents' voting power had been diluted.
A panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals gave the order Friday, denying a request by state officials to delay the impact of a ruling that U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves issued last month.
Reeves said Senate District 22 should be redrawn because it fails to give African-American voters an "equal opportunity" to elect a candidate of their choice. The appeals court wrote that a majority of members on its three-judge panel found "there is not a strong likelihood" that state officials ultimately would persuade them to overturn Reeves' ruling.
Three black residents sued the state in July, saying the composition of the district violates the Voting Rights Act. It stretches through parts of six counties, including poor and mostly black parts of the Delta into the affluent and mostly white Jackson suburbs of Madison County. It has a 51 percent black voting-age population and a white senator, Republican Buck Clarke of Hollandale, who was first elected in 2003 under a somewhat different configuration of the district. Clarke is not seeking re-election this year because he's running for state treasurer.
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"The Court of Appeals quite properly confirmed Judge Reeves' ruling that lines of District 22 should be changed for this year's election. That configuration added wealthy majority-white suburbs in Madison County to an otherwise largely African-American rural district in the Delta to dilute African-American voting strength in violation of the Voting Rights Act," Rob McDuff, one of the plaintiffs' attorneys, said in a statement Friday.
McDuff, Mississippi Center for Justice and the Washington-based Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law were among those representing African-Americans who brought the lawsuit, including a former state lawmaker who lost to Clarke in 2015.
An attorney for the state could not immediately be reached after business hours Friday.
Mississippi has 52 state Senate districts, and all of the state's legislative seats are up for election this year. The current district lines were set in 2012 and have been used since the 2015 legislative elections.
Both Reeves and the appeals court judges acknowledged that redrawing District 22 will require at least one nearby Senate district to be redrawn, as well.
The appeals court set an April 3 deadline for lawmakers to draw the new districts. Candidates' qualifying deadline for all legislative races was March 1, but the appeals court said the qualifying deadline in the newly drawn districts will be April 12.