District court decides that Alabama elections do not violate Voting Rights Act

On February 5th, U.S. District Judge W. Keith Watkins ruled that Alabama’s at-large method of electing appellate judges does not dilute the voting power of black citizens.

The case was brought to the court by the NAACP, which contended that Alabama’s mode of at-large elections for appellate judges, as opposed to voting by election districts, disenfranchises black voters. Further, they argued that this is the reason why there have been no black state appellate civil and criminal judges and only three black judges on the Alabama Supreme Court in the last 36 years.

In his 210-page opinion, Justice Watkins argued that two factors lay behind the lack of racial diversity on the Alabama courts: the decline of the Alabama Democratic Party, and the lack of black-preferred candidates on the ballot. “Notwithstanding the recent minimal representation of black-preferred candidates on Alabama’s appellate courts, the evidence demonstrates that reasons other than race better explain the defeat of black-preferred candidates in Alabama’s appellate judicial races.” Justice Watkins stated that the “recent decline of the Alabama Democratic Party and a failure of black-preferred candidates to compete generally are two primary culprits. Plaintiffs presented no evidence that race is the reason for the Party’s current failings or the reason why black-preferred candidates are not running for statewide appellate judge seats.”

The lawsuit sought to alter the selection method of the state to election by districts. The NAACP argued that the state’s method of selection violated two sections of the Voting Rights Act, and obliged the court to prove that the selection method is equally open to black justices and does not hinder black voters’ rights on account of race. They asked the court to find a new method of selection for appellate judges in the state and proposed nine voting districts. Benard Simelton, president of the Alabama NAACP, called the decision a “significant disappointment.”

In his opinion Justice Watkins wrote, “African Americans have served at the highest reaches of state government, and they can do so again.”

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