Times Staff Report
The head of the Alabama NAACP lauded a recent federal court ruling that will allow a lawsuit to continue that challenges the way judges are elected to the state’s appeals court.
At the center of the lawsuit is the fact that all 19 of Alabama’s appellate judges – who sit on the Alabama Supreme Court, the Court of Criminal Appeals and the Court of Civil Appeals – are white.
“The Alabama NAACP is elated that the court has ruled in favor of the people to deny Alabama’s motion to dismiss this case,” said Benard Simelton, president of the Alabama NAACP. The ruling, handed down Aug. 31, allows the lawsuit, which alleges that how Alabama elects appellate judges violates the Voting Rights Act of 1965, to continue working its way through the courts.
“We believe the method of voting is unlawful,” Simelton said.
The Alabama State Conference of the NAACP and four black voters filed suit in September 2016 contending that electing appeals court judges by statewide vote violates section 2 of the Voting Rights Act by diluting the black vote. No black candidate in Alabama has ever been elected statewide unless appointed to their positions first, which the lawsuit contends is directly related to judges running at large, as noted by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which is litigating the suit on behalf of the NAACP and the other plaintiffs: “In the history of Alabama, only two African Americans have won an election to statewide office. Every other black statewide candidate has been defeated by a white candidate. Alabama’s appellate judges have been all-white for 16 years.”
About 26 percent of Alabama residents are black.
Attorneys representing the state had asked the U.S. District Court in Montgomery, where the suit was filed, to dismiss the case. But the federal court denied the request, allowing the lawsuit to continue. The ruling, signed by Chief U.S. District Judge W. Keith Watkins orders the state to respond to the lawsuit on or before Sept. 14.
“When you elect judges in a statewide system, it weakens the African American vote, which is why judges should be elected by districts like members of the state legislature,” Simelton said. “Furthermore, we are pleased that the District Court appreciates the importance of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965; this will give African Americans an equal opportunity to elect judges of their choosing.”