By Kim Chandler
MONTGOMERY, Ala.— A civil rights group challenged Alabama’s practice of electing appellate judges by statewide vote last week, saying the result is all-white courts in a state where one in four people is African-American.
The lawsuit filed on behalf of NAACP’s Alabama chapter and four black voters in Montgomery federal court argues that at-large judicial elections in Alabama violate Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act by diluting the voting power of African-American citizens.
The lawsuit comes as the nation’s attention turns to voter restrictions and ballot access with only weeks to go before Election Day. A lawsuit filed in Texas this summer on behalf of Latino voters makes similar arguments, saying the large districts used in judicial elections there disenfranchise minorities.
“In 2016, Alabama’s appellate courts are no more diverse than they were when the Voting Rights Act was signed more than 50 years ago,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which filed the suit. “This case makes clear that voting discrimination is alive and well across the state of Alabama.”
Alabama’s appellate judges run statewide for election, just like the governor, attorney general and other top officials. The system has resulted in Republican-dominated courts — not a single Democrat is running for the appellate court seats open in November.
“We deem the situation in Alabama among the most dire in the country in the terms of lack of diversity,” Clarke said.
Alabama is one of about seven states that elect appellate judges in partisan elections, and racially polarized voting patterns in the deeply red state means elections are largely decided in the Republican primaries, resulting in a court that is not reflective of the state’s population, said attorney James Blacksher, who is working the case.
Electing judges in smaller geographic districts where minorities have a larger voice could lead to some racial diversity, Blacksher argued.
The lawsuit name state of Alabama and Secretary of State John Merrill as defendants. A spokeswoman for Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange said his office is reviewing the lawsuit and does not have a comment at this time.
The only African-American candidates ever elected to statewide office in Alabama — former justices Oscar Adams and Ralph Cook — were both elected to the state’s Supreme Court. However, both were initially appointed to the court by governors, so they had the power of incumbency in their campaigns, and their elections were decades ago when the Democratic Party was a greater force in state politics. The court has been all-white for the last 15 years.