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Magnolia Bar Association Inc. v. Lee

decided as corrected: July 9, 1993.

MAGNOLIA BAR ASSOCIATION, INC., ET AL., PLAINTIFFS-APPELLANTS,
v.
ROY NOBLE LEE, ET AL., DEFENDANTS-APPELLEES.



Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi. D.C. DOCKET NUMBER CA-J90-0413(B). JUDGE William H. Barbour, Jr.

Before Politz, Chief Judge, King, and Duhe, Circuit Judges.

Author: King

KING, Circuit Judge:

The plaintiffs in this case filed suit against various officials of the State of Mississippi, alleging that Mississippi's current method of electing supreme court Judges violates section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, 42 U.S.C. § 1973 et seq. The district court rejected the plaintiffs' section 2 claim and dismissed their complaint. The plaintiffs now appeal. For the following reasons, we affirm the decision of the district court.

I. BACKGROUND

The Mississippi Supreme Court is the state's court of last resort in both criminal and civil matters. It currently consists of nine Judges who are selected for eight-year terms in partisan elections. Vacancies are filled by the Governor, with special elections held for the unexpired term. Candidates for the Mississippi Supreme Court must meet age, residency, and professional qualifications, which are set forth in the Mississippi Constitution. See Miss. Const. art. VI, § 150.

The state of Mississippi is divided into three east-west districts for purposes of electing supreme court Judges. That is, three Judges are elected from the Northern District, the Central District, and the Southern District of the state. In each of the three east-west districts, then, Mississippi Supreme Court Judges are chosen in at-large, partisan elections.

On August 17, 1990, the Magnolia Bar Association, the Mississippi State Conference of the NAACP, the Rainbow Coalition, the Mississippi Association of Black Supervisors, the Mississippi Conference of Black Mayors, and four black citizens and registered voters of Mississippi (collectively, "Plaintiffs"), filed suit against various state officials (collectively, "Defendants"). The Plaintiffs alleged, among other things, that Mississippi's method of electing supreme court Judges violates section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, 42 U.S.C. § 1973.*fn1 As a remedy, the Plaintiffs sought single-member election districts, or in the alternative, an election scheme using limited or cumulative voting.

The Plaintiffs' section 2 claim proceeded to trial on February 25, 1992. During trial, the Plaintiffs advanced several theories of section 2 liability. First, they presented evidence designed to challenge the current multimember election districts--i.e., evidence suggesting that the multimember election districts, as currently drawn, dilute black voting strength. They also levelled a "vote fragmentation" challenge to the current election scheme, arguing that the current east-west district lines impermissibly fracture black voting strength, which is concentrated in the western segment of Mississippi. Finally, the Plaintiffs offered evidence designed to prove a "hybrid" line-drawing/multimember section 2 claim. Specifically, they presented evidence designed to show that Mississippi's multimember districting scheme, when combined with the east-west districting lines, operates to cancel out or minimize black voting strength.

The district court rejected each of the theories of section 2 liability advanced by the Plaintiffs. See Magnolia Bar Ass'n v. Lee, 793 F. Supp. 1386 (S.D.Miss.1992). With regard to the Plaintiffs' straightforward challenge to the current multimember election districts, the court first determined that, in the Northern and Southern Districts, the Plaintiffs had failed to adduce evidence sufficient to satisfy the first threshold requirement of Thornburg v. Gingles, 478 U.S. 30, 106 S. Ct. 2752, 92 L. Ed. 2d 25 (1986) (i.e., they failed to demonstrate that blacks would constitute a majority of the voting age population in any of the proposed single member districts). See 793 F. Supp. at 1401-02. The court also concluded that, in the Central District, the Plaintiffs had failed to satisfy the third Gingles threshold requirement (i.e., they failed to demonstrate a pattern of legally significant white bloc voting). See 793 F. Supp. at 1405-07. As for the Plaintiffs' straightforward vote fragmentation claim, the district court determined that it also failed on the first Gingles threshold requirement. The district court specifically concluded that, even if north-south districts were drawn, blacks would not constitute a majority of the voting age population in any of the three proposed multimember districts. See 793 F. Supp. at 1414-15. Finally, with respect to the Plaintiffs' hybrid challenge, the district court determined that, although the Plaintiffs had satisfied the Gingles threshold requirements, their claim failed under the totality of the circumstances inquiry. See 793 F. Supp. at 1415-18.

Ultimately, the district court concluded that the Plaintiffs "failed to prove by a preponderance of the evidence any violation of section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965." 793 F. Supp. at 1418. The district court accordingly entered judgment in favor of the Defendants and dismissed the case. The Plaintiffs now appeal.

II. GOVERNING LEGAL PRINCIPLES

A. The Section 2 Framework

Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, as amended, prohibits states and political subdivisions from employing any "voting qualification or prerequisite to voting or standard, practice, or procedure ... in a manner which results in a denial or abridgment of the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color." 42 U.S.C. § 1973(a). Section 2 further provides that

A violation ... is established if, based on the totality of the circumstances, it is shown that the political processes leading to nomination or election in the State or political subdivision are not equally open to participation by members of [a protected class] ... in that its members have less opportunity than other members of the electorate to participate in the political process and to elect representatives of their choice.

Id. § 1973(b). Finally, section 2 instructs that, although courts should consider "the extent to which members of a protected class have been elected to office in the State or political subdivision," the protected class has no "right to have members .. elected in numbers equal to their proportion in the population." Id.

It is settled in this circuit that section 2 claims must be analyzed under a two-part framework. To prevail on such a claim, a class of minority voters must first satisfy certain threshold requirements set forth by the Supreme Court in Thornburg v. Gingles, 478 U.S. 30, 106 S. Ct. 2752, 92 L. Ed. 2d 25 (1986). Minority voters must then offer evidence of the circumstances of the local political landscape--many of which Congress specifically listed in the 1982 amendments to section 2 as being relevant to the inquiry. Ultimately, the Gingles threshold inquiry and the broad, totality of circumstances inquiry are designed to probe whether the challenged election ...


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