A three-judge panel was appointed last week in the Eastern District of Arkansas to preside over a lawsuit challenging the way Arkansas lawmakers enacted a legislative redistricting plan in 2011.
In the suit, Julius J. Larry III, a retired civil-rights attorney in Houston, Texas, who became the publisher of the weekly Little Rock Sun black newspaper in 2013, contends that the boundaries of the 1st Congressional District were set to intentionally dilute black voting strength, in violation of the Voting Rights Act.
U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker, to whom the case was assigned, on April 23 dismissed a second claim in which Larry said the state gerrymandered the boundaries in violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment, saying that because he lives in Little Rock, in the 2nd Congressional District, he lacked standing to pursue that claim.
The defendants in the case -- the state, Gov. Asa Hutchinson, Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, Secretary of State Mark Martin and the Arkansas Legislature -- all filed motions asking Baker to dismiss both claims on the grounds that Larry lacked standing and didn't name the proper defendants. But Baker said the vote-dilution claims fall under a federal mandate requiring a three-judge panel to be convened when someone challenges the constitutionality of the apportionment of congressional districts.
Larry said Monday that he believes the three-judge panel -- Baker, Chief U.S. District Judge Brian Miller and U.S. Circuit Judge Duane Benton of Kansas City, Mo. -- will hold a trial in October. Chief U.S. Circuit Judge Lavenski Smith of Little Rock appointed the panelists last week.
Larry seeks a declaratory judgment that the defendants violated the law in drawing the boundaries of the state's four congressional districts, particularly the 1st District, which includes 30 counties, including those in the Delta with a high black population. He noted that the First District was re-drawn to include largely white areas such as Jonesboro, which are far from the Delta and whose inclusion served only to dilute the strength of the majority of Arkansas' black voters.
He hopes that the panel issues a decision before November so it can halt elections based on the current plan and require the defendants to adopt a new redistricting plan that doesn't dilute black voting strength.
Baker said the panel will first have to decide whether Larry has standing to bring his vote-dilution claim in federal court. She said such claims are "analytically distinct" from equal protection racial gerrymandering claims, under a 1993 U.S. Supreme court decision.
But, she wrote, "the Supreme Court has not decided if a plaintiff asserting a vote-dilution claim under Section 2 [of the Voting Rights Act] must live in the district where the alleged dilution has occurred, and there is disagreement among the lower courts that have examined this issue."
Larry said Monday that on Feb. 9, "I filed the request [the lawsuit] myself, because no one here had done this before." He said he had asked several well-known civil-rights attorneys in Arkansas to help him with the case, but they never got around to it so he filed it pro-se, with himself being the plaintiff and the attorney. Larry said he hopes the suit will be amended at some point to name other plaintiffs, so he can stick to being the attorney, or one of the attorneys.
He said he also hopes to pursue the case as a class-action to apply to everyone affected by the redistricting, which he said he began to question after moving to Arkansas in 2009 to sell caskets through his business, Paradise Casket Co.
Larry said he became particularly alarmed "when I heard that there had never been a black elected official in Congress since Arkansas became a state in 1836," and he then began to scrutinize the boundaries of the four districts. He concluded that the First District, in particular, was unusually large, consisting of 30 of the state's 75 counties.
"This was no accident, but the result of systematic, institutionalized, racial gerrymandering over the years. Defendants packed like-minded voters in the Northeast into the First Congressional District," the lawsuit states.
Among the changes he would like to see, he said, is the forming of a fifth majority-black district in the southeast part of the Arkansas Delta, "where most of the African-Americans in this state live." He also would like to see Pulaski and Jefferson counties, both now part of the 2nd District, become part of the First District.
Metro on 05/08/2018