Federal lawsuit takes on Alabama’s entirely white top courts

From left to right: Alabama’s Court of Civil Appeals, Supreme Court, and Court of Criminal Appeals. CREDIT: http://judicial.alabama.gov/
From left to right: Alabama’s Court of Civil Appeals, Supreme Court, and Court of Criminal Appeals. CREDIT: http://judicial.alabama.gov/

Tuscaloosa reverend Curtis Travis has been voting his whole life in Alabama. While nearly one-fourth of the voting population, like him, is black, the three highest courts in the state are entirely white, and have been so for more than a decade.

On Wednesday, Travis and three other African American voters sued the state for conducting its judicial elections in a way they say prevents voters of color from electing the candidates of their choice. They argue that at-large elections, in which the entire state votes on all of the state’s top judges, has prevented them from electing anyone who truly represents them.

“There have been years of minorities making strides, but the white men continue to hold disproportionate power our state,” he said on a call with reporters. “Alabama is more diverse now than ever, but our judges are not.”

“Alabama is more diverse now than ever, but our judges are not.”

The Alabama State Conference of the NAACP, representing these four black voters, accused Alabama on Wednesday of violating the Voting Rights Act by electing all 19 of the state’s top judges in statewide, at-large races with partisan primaries. It is one of just five states to choose their judges this way.

Jim Blacksher, an Alabama civil rights attorney working on the case, said that the state’s extreme racial polarization and history of voter suppression made it a prime target for a lawsuit.

“The Republican Party has really mobilized the majority-white electorate of Alabama,” he said. “So the only way African Americans will have a chance to elect candidates of their choice is if the method of elections is changed.”

The plaintiffs are demanding the federal district court in Montgomery divide the state up into districts that each elect a member of the state’s Supreme Court and appellate courts. That way, the few sections of the state with majority-black populations have a chance at electing a judge of their choice to the courts. They hope the court will force the state to make this change by 2017 or 2018.

The lawsuit notes that since 1994, every African American candidate that has run for any of the three top courts has lost to a white candidate. Only two black judges have ever been elected to the state Supreme Court, and zero have served on either the Court of Criminal Appeals or the Court of Civil Appeals in the entirety of the state’s history.

“We need to create a judiciary that reflects the great diversity you see across the great state of Alabama,” said Kristen Clarke, the president of the Lawyers’ Committee on Civil Rights Under Law.

Alabama residents recreate the “Bloody Sunday” march for voting rights on its 50th anniversary in Selma, Alabama. CREDIT: Alice Ollstein
Alabama residents recreate the “Bloody Sunday” march for voting rights on its 50th anniversary in Selma, Alabama. CREDIT: Alice Ollstein

At-large elections have been a common tactic across the country to prevent minority groups from achieving political representation. In Alabama in the mid-1980s, courts found that more than 200 jurisdictions were using at-large elections to strip black voters of political power.

“In the century following Reconstruction,” a court found amid that series of cases, “the Alabama Legislature had purposefully switched from single-member districts to the at-large election of local governments to prevent African-American citizens from electing candidates of their choice, and that the general laws of Alabama governing at-large election systems throughout the state had been manipulated intentionally during the 1950s and 1960s to strengthen their ability to dilute African-American voting strength.”

More recently, civil rights groups have challenged at-large elections in Georgia, Texas, California, and Washington, claiming they too are designed to preserve white control of government in areas becoming more diverse.

“The at-large method of electing judges to the three high courts submerges African-American voters so that they are rendered ineffective.”

As in those other states, the NAACP argues in its lawsuit against Alabama that the tactic keeps black voters from having a voice in government. “The at-large method of electing judges to the three high courts submerges African-American voters so that they are rendered ineffective electoral minorities in every election,” the suit reads.

Blacksher was more blunt. “The fact that no African-Americans are on the Alabama Supreme Court or any other office elected statewide sends a clear message that black Alabamians remain subordinate to whites in state government, just as the 1901 Constitution intended,” he said.

The suit goes on to lists what some of the negative impacts of having 19 white judges presiding over a one-quarter black state, including stark disparities in the criminal justice system.

Though African Americans make up about a quarter of the state’s population, they comprise more than 60 percent of its prison population. And while only 6 percent of all murders in Alabama involve black perpetrators and white victims, over 60 percent of black death row prisoners were sentenced for killing a white person.

Travis, speaking to reporters on Wednesday, said that diversifying the courts would give them a broader range of perspectives and more empathy when dealing with cases involving people of color. Having to work with black justices, he added, would make the white justices on the courts more tolerant.

“Some cases have ambiguity, the judges should be able to identify with the hopes and struggles of the plaintiffs,” he said. “It would give judges a better sense of the America we live in.”

Secretary of State John Merrill, who is named in the lawsuit, said in a statement to ThinkProgress that while it would be “ inappropriate” to comment on the lawsuit, his goal remains “to ensure that every eligible Alabamian is registered to vote and has a valid form of id allowing them to participate on Election Day.”