Judges will decide redistricting if lawmakers do not act

JACKSON — A panel of three federal judges said yesterday it would draw new lines for Mississippi’s four congressional districts if the Legislature doesn’t meet a deadline in about two weeks for a new map.

“To be practical about it, I don’t see any realistic hope that the Legislature will pass a plan,” U.S. Appeals Court Judge E. Grady Jolly said. “After Dec. 4, we’re going to move forward.”

The judges announced their decision at the end of a hearing on whether the court could revive a 10-year-old lawsuit to draw new lines. The Mississippi Republican Party had sought the move, supported by Gov. Haley Barbour and Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, both Republicans. The move makes it likely that federal judges will choose the state’s congressional district for the sixth consecutive decade.

“What concerns me is that the Legislature has traditionally hooked the trace chains to the federal judiciary, and that’s not really our job,” said U.S. District Judge David C. Bramlette.

However, a group including state Rep. Kelvin Buck, D-Holly Springs, filed a new suit proposing their own congressional map, supported by U.S. Rep Bennie Thompson, D-Miss. Thompson and U.S. Rep. Gregg Harper, R-Miss., were unable to agree on a map, which was one reason why the Legislature failed to act.

New lines are required every 10 years after Census results are released to reflect population shifts, ensuring that votes count the same from district to district. In this case, each of the four congressional districts should have 741,824 people. State law requires that lawmakers propose a new map by Dec. 4, 30 days before the start of the Jan. 3 legislative session.

Though legislators were appointed to a congressional redistricting committee, little apparent progress has taken place. Hosemann told the judges that he had urged lawmakers to act, with the hopes of getting Barbour to call a special session, but said those efforts “proved unfruitful.”

“Pretty much across the board, I think we see no common ground in the next two weeks,” he said. He urged the court to act, saying the state and counties would have to spend a combined $1 million to run a special election if redistricting is further delayed.

Judicial action will likely be quick, in an effort to meet a Jan. 13 qualifying deadline for the March 13 primaries. Jolly said the court would listen to comments filed by Dec. 12, then draw a map and see if anyone objected. A hearing could follow if objections are filed.

Michael Wallace, the lawyer for the state GOP, said there was no reason to have a new trial, saying the trial findings from 10 years ago could be used. “We do not believe it is a complicated process,” he told the judges, urging them to “move the lines as little as possible.”

Jolly didn’t make it exactly clear what would happen to the new lawsuit, although he urged parties to file comments on the map it proposes. The cases could be combined, or the new plaintiffs could intervene in the old suit, said their lead lawyer, Carroll Rhodes.

Rhodes told the judges that his lawsuit proposes a “least-change” plan. He said Thompson opposed Harper’s proposal to extend the 2nd District south through Natchez into Wilkinson County, on the Louisiana state line.

Northeast Mississippi’s 1st District is the most heavily overpopulated, with 788,095 people or 6.2 percent above ideal, according to court filings. The 2nd District, centered in the Delta and Jackson, had 668,263 people, 9.9 percent below ideal. Central Mississippi’s 3rd District and south Mississippi’s 4th are slightly above the ideal.

The map Thompson favors would move all of Panola County and part of Grenada County from the 1st to the 2nd. It would move part of Winston County from the 1st to the 3rd. It would move parts of Leake, Madison and Hinds counties from the 3rd to the 2nd, while it would move some other Madison County areas from the 2nd to the 3rd. Finally, it would move parts of Marion County from 4th to the 3rd.

Hosemann said after the hearing that he would urge the judges to draw their own plan and not adopt any outside proposal. He said any outside proposal would have to be pre-cleared, potentially throwing off the election schedule.

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