Mississippi’s Legislative Maps Discriminate Against Black Voters, Federal Court Rules

Mississippi State Capitol Building (Chuck Kelly/Flickr)
Mississippi State Capitol Building (Chuck Kelly/Flickr)

A federal three-judge panel on Tuesday struck down Mississippi’s Republican-drawn legislative maps, finding that certain districts discriminate against Black voters in violation of the Voting Rights Act (VRA). 

According to the court’s 119-page order, the Mississippi Legislature will now have an opportunity to redraw the three districts, after which special elections will be held in those districts. 

In yesterday’s unanimous ruling, a panel of George W. Bush-appointed judges sided with the Mississippi State Conference of the NAACP and Black voters, who alleged in a 2022 lawsuit that the state Senate and House maps unlawfully dilute Black voting strength.

At a trial held in February, the plaintiffs argued that Mississippi’s 38% Black population — which is the highest percentage of any state in the country — could support at least four additional majority-Black Senate districts and at least three additional majority-Black House districts under the VRA.  

The panel yesterday agreed in part, finding that three additional majority-Black districts proposed by the plaintiffs could be drawn under Section 2 of the VRA, which protects against racially discriminatory redistricting plans.

In particular, the court held that two more majority-Black Senate districts could be constructed in northern Mississippi around DeSoto County and in the southeastern area of the state around the city of Hattiesburg, while an additional Section 2-compliant House District could be drawn in the northeastern counties of Chickasaw and Monroe.

“Of importance…is that the 2022 Enacted Plans contained the same number of majority-minority districts as the previously enacted plans despite the admitted black-population growth and white-population decline,” the opinion states.

The judges also rejected an argument proffered by state GOP officials and the Mississippi Republican Party that private individuals cannot sue under Section 2 of the VRA. In refuting the defendants’ suggestion that Section 2 lacks a private right of action, the panel pointed to a recent 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision that reaffirmed private enforcement of the statute in Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas.

The panel concluded that it would be a “momentous change” for a court “to hold after almost 60 years, that [Section 2] cases filed by private individuals were never properly brought,” but acknowledged that the U.S. Supreme Court has never formally resolved the matter. 

Just last week, the Arkansas State Conference of the NAACP opted out of asking the Supreme Court to weigh in on an 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision that foreclosed private enforcement of Section 2 in seven states. Accordingly, a so-called “circuit split” remains over the issue, with some federal appeals courts — in contrast to the 8th Circuit — explicitly allowing for private enforcement under Section 2.

Aside from bringing VRA claims, Black voters in the Mississippi case also maintained that the legislative districts drawn after the 2020 census were unconstitutional racial gerrymanders, but the panel found that the plaintiffs did not meet the high burden to prove that race predominated the state’s redistricting process. 

The court will hold a hearing the week of July 8 to discuss the next steps in the process for the state to remedy its VRA violation. “It is the desire of this court to have new legislators elected before the 2025 legislative session convenes, but the parties can make whatever arguments about timing they conclude are valid,” the opinion reads. 

The panel noted that if the Legislature fails to meet an eventual deadline for submitting a new set of maps, the parties should be prepared to submit their own map proposals to the court for review. State officials have not yet indicated whether they will appeal the ruling. 

Since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2023 decision in Allen v. Milligan, which preserved Section 2 of the VRA, federal courts have struck down legislative maps in Georgia, Louisiana, North Dakota and Washington for discriminating against minority voters. 

In response to the yesterday’s ruling, Jarvis Dortch, executive director of the ACLU of Mississippi, said that “[t]he court rightly held that the Mississippi Legislature used the redistricting process to dilute the power of Black voters. Those legislative districts denied Black Mississippians an equal voice in state government.”

Ari Savitzky, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, called the ruling “a win for Black Mississippians,” adding that “[t]he 2022 maps illegally prevented Black Mississippians from fully and fairly participating in our democracy in places like DeSoto County, Hattiesburg, and Chickasaw County. The court correctly found that the Voting Rights Act demands more.”

Read the opinion here.

Learn more about the case here.