Voting rights advocates are announcing a federal lawsuit today alleging that the majority-white districts used for electing Mississippi Supreme Court justices violate the Voting Rights Act and the U.S. Constitution by denying Black voters the option to elect a justice of their choice. A higher percentage of Mississippians are Black than in any other state.
“Although Mississippi’s population is almost 40% Black, none of the three districts from which voters elect justices to the Mississippi Supreme Court is a majority Black district,” the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi said in a statement announcing the challenge. “The lawsuit asserts that Mississippi Supreme Court boundaries deny Black voters an equal opportunity to participate in the political process and elect candidates of their choice.”
The state has a north, central and southern Supreme Court district, each of which elect three justices to eight-year terms in staggered non-partisan election cycles. Only one of the nine current justices, Leslie King, is Black. He first joined the court after Gov. Haley Barbour appointed him to fill a vacancy; voters then elected him to the position in 2012 and re-elected him in 2020. The other eight justices are white.
King is the state’s fourth Black Supreme Court justice, but all four Black justices who have served did so only after being first appointed by a white governor, and none has ever served at the same time as the others. Democratic Gov. Bill Allain appointed the state’s first Black Supreme Court justice, Reuben Anderson, in 1985. All four Black justices have been men.
“No Black candidate has been successful at running for Supreme Court justice unless they’ve been appointed first,”Jarvis Dortch, the executive director of the Mississippi ACLU, told the Mississippi Free Press on Friday. “That’s not exactly giving Black voters a choice. I would argue it’s not giving them much of a choice at all in who they select.”
In 2020, Latrice Westbrooks, a Black Mississippi Court of Appeals judge, ran for a seat on the Mississippi Supreme Court, but lost narrowly to T. Kenneth Griffis, a white justice former Republican Gov. Phil Bryant appointed in 2019. Had she won, Westbrooks would have been the first Black woman to serve on the Mississippi Supreme Court.
“For us it’s a pretty straightforward case that these districts have been in place for 35 years, it’s pretty clear Black voters cannot elect candidates of their choice because of how their districts are drawn,” Dortch said.
Under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, states cannot dilute the voting strength of non-white voters.
“Despite comprising a majority in parts of the State, Black voters do not comprise a majority in any of Mississippi’s three Supreme Court districts. This is a classic case of voting dilution,” the ACLU statement says. “Mississippi has a 40 percent Black population—a greater proportion than any other state. Yet only four Black justices have ever served on Mississippi’s nine-member Supreme Court, and there has never been more than one Black justice serving on that court at a time. This persistent underrepresentation is due to vote dilution in violation of the VRA.
“In addition to violating Section 2 of the VRA, Mississippi’s Supreme Court districts violate the United States Constitution, which prohibits states from maintaining or reaffirming electoral structures for a discriminatory purpose.”
The lawsuit asks the Mississippi Legislature to redraw the Mississippi Supreme Court district lines, which it has not done since 1987.
“The numbers we’ve looked show that around a 54%, 55% Black district can easily be created,” Dortch said. “Right now you have a district where the Delta is kind of split from it, and by doing that you’re able to basically break Black voting strength by having the Delta split into the northern district and the remaining into the central district.”
The Mississippi Supreme Court settles key cases regarding state law, often with significant ramifications. After voters approved a medical-marijuana program by ballot initiative in 2020, the Mississippi Supreme Court nullified the state’s ballot-initiative system and struck down the medical-marijuana law in a court ruling, leaving it up to the Mississippi Legislature to pass a medical marijuana program.
As a result, Mississippi residents can no longer place issues on the ballot unless the Legislature approves a new ballot-initiative law.
The Mississippi ACLU is filing the lawsuit alongside the national ACLU, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and Simpon Thacher and Bartlett LLP, a law firm headquartered in New York City.