Group files lawsuit against Natchez over voting districts

Published 12:05 am Wednesday, June 10, 2015

NATCHEZ — A former mayor, a retired judge, a minister and an officer in the Natchez branch of the NAACP have filed a federal lawsuit against the city alleging voting districts weaken the black vote.

The lawsuit, filed by former Mayor Phillip West, Judge Mary Lee Toles, the Rev. Clifton Marvel, and Jacqueline Marsaw, alleges that the current lines for aldermen districts — based on the 2000 census — are drawn in a way that “fractures geographically concentrated African American population and dilutes African American voting strength.”

“Voting in Natchez … has been racially polarized in elections in which a African American candidate has run for office, with white voters generally voting for white candidates and African American voters voting for African American candidates for elective office,” the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit states that according to the 2010 census, 58.35 percent of the city’s population is black. Three of the six aldermen on the city board are black.

“Natchez’s … use of a malapportioned aldermanic redistricting plan based upon 2000 census data has caused and is causing immediate and irreparable harm and injury to plaintiffs and members of the African American race by denying them an equal opportunity to participate in the political process and to elect municipal candidates of their choice to public office,” the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit suggests the current districts violate the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments by “canceling out African American voting strength” and results in a “25.49 percent total deviation among the six aldermanic ward(s).”

Marvel said the lawsuit was “a corporate action” of individuals, the NAACP and “any other organization you can think of that directly affects African Americans.”

“This is long overdue,” he said. “If the court took it up yesterday, they would be too late.”

The lawsuit does not lay forth a proposed plan, but asks the court to declare the current redistricting plan unconstitutional and bar its use in the May 3, 2016 municipal primaries.

The lawsuit also seeks to have the court order an interim districting plan or order new elections within six months of the 2016 primaries.

Toles declined to comment, saying she would let the lawsuit speak for itself.

Natchez Mayor Butch Brown said the lawsuit is “really a routine kind of a thing. Every census, you have to adjust your population lines and that requires redistricting most times,” Brown said.

He said the city’s board of aldermen met in executive session today and agreed to employ special counsel to work with city attorney Hyde Carby to prepare for redistricting.

“This isn’t a hostile thing. We are in favor of it. We want to keep our districts in compliance with federal statutes,” Brown said.

The city submitted a redistricting plan to the U.S. Department of Justice in December 2011 for pre-clearance. Federal preclearance was a requirement for Mississippi and a number of other states when the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was enacted.

By March 2012, just weeks ahead of city elections, city leaders had received no answer from the DOJ on whether its plan had been approved or not.

On advice of the Mississippi Attorney General’s office the city proceeded with elections. On Election Day, May 1, 2012, the DOJ finally responded, rejecting the city’s redistricting plan, at that point the election was already under way and the election results stood.

“This is something that’s required by law. We will do whatever we have to do to comply with redistricting, if anything,” Brown said.

He said any redistricting needs to be completed by the end of this year, prior to the 2016 city elections.