Alabama’s at-large, statewide election of judges to its three highest courts systematically discriminates against African-Americans in violation of the Voting Rights Acts of 1965, keeping those courts all white, the state NAACP claimed in a federal lawsuit Wednesday.
The stakes run enormously high, the lawsuit says: The courts hear suits on the death penalty, which disproportionately affects blacks, and a vast array of claims of racial discrimination in housing, employment, education and criminal sentencing.
Despite a 26 percent black population, the sixth-largest proportion nationwide, no black has been elected to sit on any of the three courts in 21 years, and all 19 appellate judges have been white for 15 years, according to the suit, filed in Montgomery, the state capital.
“The at-large method of election deprives one-quarter of the population of the chance to elect judges of their choice to any of the 19 seats on the three courts” and “unlawfully dilutes the voting strength of African-Americans and prevents them from electing candidates of their choice,” the suit says.
The suit seeks election of the state’s most powerful judges through local district voting reflecting the racial makeup of each district.
“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 Washington-based Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which filed the suit on behalf of the NAACP and four individual black voters as co-plaintiffs.
“It is time for the highest courts in the state of Alabama to reflect the diversity of the communities they serve. This lawsuit seeks to provide African-American voters an equal opportunity to elect judges of their choice, achieve long overdue compliance with the Voting Rights Act and instill greater public confidence in the justice system of Alabama.”
In a telephone news conference, Clarke said many white voters in the state routinely vote as a bloc to defeat the candidates blacks favor.
“This case is of particular importance because it comes at a moment when all across our nation, there is a dialog happening around ways to strengthen our justice system,” Clarke said. “We believe that bringing these courts into compliance with the Voting Rights Act will increase the public’s confidence in the outcomes that are produced by these three courts and result in a judiciary that reflects the great racial diversity that we see across the state of Alabama.”
The NAACP suit names as defendants the state of Alabama and Secretary of State John Merrill. A spokesman for Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange, a Republican whose duties include overseeing statewide elections, declined comment, saying his office is reviewing the suit.