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Mississippi redistricting complicated by dueling lawsuits

By Staff
Dec. 10, 2001
Mississippi's congressional redistricting battle is tangled in irony.
Legislators couldn't unravel the sticky problem of how to take the state from five districts to four, so the struggle is playing out in the courts.
Democrats have filed a lawsuit in state court. Republicans have filed one in federal court.
That's where the irony comes in.
For decades, Republicans have waved the banner of states' rights, saying the federal government should play only a limited role in setting public policy. At the same time, Democrats particularly racial minorities have looked to the federal government for relief of social ills.
Now they've switched places.
That should come as no surprise, given the courts' structure.
Though Mississippi judges run without party labels, the chancellor hearing the Democrats' lawsuit was elected from a majority-black read: majority Democratic district in Hinds County.
The three federal judges considering the Republicans' lawsuit were appointed by Republican presidents. One of their colleagues, U.S. District Judge Charles Pickering, is the father of one of the congressmen who has the most at stake in redistricting, Republican U.S. Rep. Chip Pickering.
Judge Pickering is keeping his distance from the redistricting battle, but some Democrats are grumbling that it could be tough for his colleagues to ignore their friendship with him as they deal with a matter that could decide his son's political future.
Democrats aren't the only ones grumbling about the judge situation.
Republicans are questioning whether the Hinds chancery judge can ignore her constituency as she considers a case that could decide the fate of Democratic U.S. Rep. Ronnie Shows.
Shows and Chip Pickering are Mississippi's two newest congressmen and are likely to be tossed together in a new district.
Chancery Judge Patricia Wise has set a Dec. 14 trial date in her court. The federal judges have said they'll take over the redistricting process unless they see clear indications by Jan. 7 that state authorities can resolve the problem.
March 1 is the deadline for congressional candidates to qualify for the 2002 races. With no districts, qualifying is tough.
A quirk of Mississippi law allows statewide election of congressmen if the new districts haven't been set.
That provision has been approved by the U.S. Justice Department, which oversees Mississippi election laws to ensure fairness to minorities. But it hasn't been tested in court, and lawyers say a court challenge is guaranteed if the federal judges order at-large elections.
Why? Like so many other questions in Mississippi, it goes back to race. About 38 percent of the state's population is black, and Mississippians have a pattern of voting along racial lines.
Some say that means that the state's only black congressman, Democratic U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, could have a tough time winning statewide. That's debatable since the charismatic Thompson has one of the state's strongest political networks. But folks who want to argue that the statewide election of congressmen is harmful to black voters would only have to turn to history to make their case.
A fundamental rule of redistricting is that new districts can't take away black political progress.
Complicated enough? All of this legal wrangling could've been avoided if legislators had buckled down, done their job and drawn the districts.