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Federal judges might take over redistricting

By Staff
From Staff and Wire Reports
Dec. 6, 2001
JACKSON Three federal judges say they'll take over Mississippi congressional redistricting if it's not clear by Jan. 7 that state legislators can agree on a new map.
Lawyers said they aren't sure how the judges' order, filed Wednesday, will affect a decision issued Monday by a state judge in a competing redistricting lawsuit.
Hinds County Chancery Judge Patricia Wise set a Jan. 14 redistricting trial in her court. Wise is expected to hold a pretrial hearing today; lawyers said she may be asked to set an earlier trial date.
Democratic activists filed suit on congressional redistricting in chancery court; Republican activists filed a competing suit in federal court.
Chancery judges don't run under party labels, but Hinds County tends to lean Democratic in state and federal elections. The three federal judges hearing the GOP lawsuit were appointed by Republican presidents.
New districts
At issue: Congressional redistricting, which must be completed and approved before the March 1 qualifying deadline for candidates planning to run in the November 2002 federal election.
Mississippi now has five congressional districts. But because the state's population grew more slowly than other states in the 1990s, Mississippi will lose one of its congressional districts.
State lawmakers met in special session last month to redraw congressional districts.
But they failed when they couldn't decide how to combine areas now represented by 3rd District Republican Chip Pickering and 4th District Democrat Ronnie Shows.
Skip Jernigan of Jackson, attorney for the Republicans who filed the federal lawsuit, said he's pleased with the order by U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge E. Grady Jolly of Jackson and U.S. District judges David Bramlette of Natchez and Henry T. Wingate of Jackson.
State courts
Carlton Reeves of Jackson, an attorney for Democrats who sued in chancery court, said if legislators can't resolve redistricting then state court is the proper place to do so.
Reeves said he thinks the federal judges "have sufficiently deferred to the state court, temporarily."
Some legislators said they should have another chance at redrawing congressional districts during the early days of the three-month 2002 regular legislative session.
The Legislature begins its three-month regular session Jan. 8 one day after the federal judges' deadline for signs of redistricting progress.
Gov. Ronnie Musgrove has said he'll call lawmakers back into special session if it's clear they have a new map ready to approve. As the Christmas holidays grow closer, scheduling another special session becomes more difficult.
Any redistricting plan approved by state authorities either lawmakers or a chancery judge would need approval of the U.S. Justice Department to ensure fairness to minorities. A plan drawn by federal judges would not need Justice Department approval, according to the order by Jolly, Bramlette and Wingate.