Congressmen confident court will produce acceptable redistricting plan

WASHINGTON — Mississippi’s four U.S. House members have expressed confidence that a federal court will produce a redistricting plan they can accept.

The three Republicans and one Democrat said they did not object to a three-judge panel taking over the job of drawing new maps, as the state Republican Party had requested. The judges said they would step in assuming the Legislature doesn’t meet a Dec. 4 deadline set by state law to produce a new map.

“The Legislature has, for a lot of different reasons, not drawn the lines, so somebody needs to do it,” said U.S. Rep Alan Nunnelee, a Tupelo Republican.

U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, the state’s lone Democratic House member, repeated his objection to his 2nd District being extended south into Adams and Wilkinson counties. For their part, Nunnelee and the state’s two other Republican House members said they object to a plan favored by Thompson that was filed in a different lawsuit.

“Absolutely none of Mississippi’s Republican House members agreed to Rep. Thompson’s proposed redistricting plan,” said Nunnelee and Reps. Gregg Harper and Steven Palazzo in a joint statement. “While there was an attempt for the members to come to an agreement, the courts have now intervened and any other maps are irrelevant.”

To avoid delays to the Jan. 13 qualifying deadline or the March 13 primaries, the court must act quickly. Robert McDuff, a Jackson attorney representing a group of voters in the case, said he thought it was possible that the panel would complete a new map sometime in December.

The judges — U.S. Appeals Court Judge E. Grady Jolly and U.S. district judges Henry T. Wingate and David C. Bramlette — said that assuming they handle the task, they plan to accept objections to their map and possibly hold a hearing.

New lines have to be drawn every 10 years after the federal Census to account for population shifts and equalize the number of voters in each district. Each of Mississippi’s four congressional districts should have 741,824 people. The majority-black 2nd District, centered in Jackson and the Delta, is far too small and must grow by nearly 74,000 people. By contrast, northeast Mississippi’s 1st District is much too big, needing to shrink by more than 46,000 people. Central Mississippi’s 3rd district and south Mississippi’s 4th district are each slightly too large, with the 3rd needing to shed 15,000 residents and the 4th needing to shed 12,000 residents.

Also important is the need to maintain a substantial black majority in the 2nd District. Any plan that substantially reduces the share of blacks in Mississippi’s only black-majority congressional district would probably face a legal challenge. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that redistricting plans must avoid what lawyers call retrogression — a reduction in black opportunities for political participation.

Thompson emphasized the importance of making sure that the black majority in his district continues to get the chance to elect a representative of their choice.

McDuff said that because the state is holding stable at four districts, instead of shrinking from five as it did 10 years ago, judges should be able to meet those criteria without radical changes.

“This is going to be a lot more simple than it was 10 years ago. The potential for disagreement is much smaller than it was the last time around,” he said.

A group of black voters led by state Rep. Kelvin Buck, D-Holly Springs, filed a new lawsuit Monday, proposing a map that would add all of Panola County and parts of Grenada, Leake, Madison and Hinds counties to the 2nd District to bolster its population.

Thompson described the plan put forward in that suit as the best plan he has seen. He said shifting his district to the south past Natchez would stretch it out more than necessary.

“Why would you extend a district an extra hundred miles when you can accomplish (redistricting) without doing that?” Thompson asked. “It defeats the purpose of compactness.”

Nunnelee said he favored, as much as possible, keeping counties in one district. But the Republican said he doesn’t plan to take an active role in redistricting.

“I just don’t think it’s appropriate for any member of Congress to draw their own district to suit themselves,” he said.

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