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Congressional redistricting trial begins in Hinds County today

By Staff
From staff and wire reports
Dec. 14, 2001
JACKSON Mississippi's congressional redistricting battle goes to trial today in Hinds County Chancery Court, as opposing sides present their ideas of how new districts should look.
The trial, the result of a lawsuit filed by Democrats, is moving forward after the state Supreme Court ruled late Thursday that the chancery court has jurisdiction to hear an election matter.
Republicans had asked the high court to dismiss the chancery suit. GOP activists have a separate action, a federal lawsuit, pending in U.S. District Court.
Lawyers said they're prepared for what could be several days of testimony before Hinds County Chancery Judge Patricia Wise.
Grant Fox of Tupelo, an attorney for the Republicans who sought to block the chancery trial, said he is obviously disappointed'' with the state Supreme Court's decision to let it move ahead.
We haven't been afforded the opportunity to prepare for trial,'' Fox said Thursday.
Rob McDuff of Jackson, an attorney for the Democrats who filed the chancery suit, applauded the high court's decision to let the trial proceed.
New districts
At issue: redrawing Mississippi's congressional districts. Mississippi currently has five districts but because the state hasn't grown as fast as others, it will lose one of its seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.
State legislators met in special session last month to redraw congressional districts in time for the March 1 qualifying deadline for next fall's federal elections.
But lawmakers couldn't agree how to combine the 3rd and 4th congressional districts a change expected to pit incumbent 3rd District Republican Chip Pickering against incumbent 4th District Democrat Ronnie Shows.
State lawmakers' failure to reach consensus set the stage for today's trial, something state Rep. Eric Robinson, R-Quitman, said shouldn't be happening.
Witness list
McDuff said he will call several witnesses, including Jackson Mayor Harvey Johnson Jr., who's expected to testify that Mississippi's capital city benefits from being represented by two members of Congress. McDuff said that would challenge arguments that counties or cities are hurt by being split into separate congressional districts.
Fox said he could call up to 30 witnesses. He will submit a proposed congressional plan that splits few counties.
McDuff will submit a map that combines elements of rival plans passed by the House and Senate during the unsuccessful November special session.
Time to draw new districts is drawing tight because of the March 1 qualifying deadline. The U.S. Justice Department must approve Mississippi's new districts to ensure fairness to minorities, and that could take up to two months.
Three federal judges hearing the Republican-filed suit have said they'll take over the redistricting process Jan. 7 if they don't see signs that state authorities can resolve the problem before March 1.
Jurisdiction dispute
The chancery lawsuit was filed against members of the state election commission Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, Attorney General Mike Moore and Secretary of State Eric Clark.
Moore late Thursday said Mississippi should amend its state constitution to clarify how congressional redistricting disputes are settled if legislators can't agree on a plan.
He said in such cases, the state Supreme Court chief justice, the attorney general, the secretary of state, the House speaker and the Senate vice president should draw a map.
Moore said those five people are now supposed to draw state House and Senate maps if lawmakers can't agree on those. Legislative redistricting is expected to start next year.
Moore said he'll ask legislators in 2002 to pass a resolution in favor of his proposed amendment. If they do that, voters would decide the amendment's fate in November 2002.