A nonpartisan group of private lawyers started at the request of President Kennedy over 50 years ago has taken action against Alabama’s judicial system, alleging racial discrimination in the election of state judges.
The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law filed a lawsuit Sept. 7 on behalf of the Alabama State Conference of the NAACP and four black voters alleging that the method of electing the state’s most powerful judges violates the Voting Rights Act.
“In 2016, Alabama’s appellate courts are no more diverse than they were when the Voting Rights Act was signed more than 50 years ago,” said Kristen Clarke, the committee’s president and executive director. “It is time for the highest courts in the state of Alabama to reflect the diversity of the communities they serve.
“This lawsuit seeks to provide African-American voters an equal opportunity to elect judges of their choice, achieve long overdue compliance with the Voting Rights Act and instill greater public confidence in the justice system of Alabama,” Clarke said.
The suit maintains that Alabama’s statewide method of electing members of the Alabama Supreme Court, Court of Criminal Appeals and Court of Civil Appeals deprives the African-American community of electing judges that match their interest.
Currently, all 19 of Alabama’s appellate judges are white.
The Lawyers’ Committee claims that all of those judges are elected statewide, which gives Alabama’s white residents a majority vote reflected in the representation of the state’s judiciary system.
They also say that because of racially polarized voting, black candidates are consistently defeated in elections involving the highest court.
“Such vote dilution is prohibited by the Voting Rights Act and the state could easily devise a fairer electoral system,” Lawyers’ Committee said in a statement.
The group filed the suit with James Blacksher and Edward Still, two longtime Alabama civil rights attorneys, and Montgomery-based attorney J. Mitch McGuire, as well as with pro bono counsel from the Crowell & Moring and Stroock & Stroock & Lavan law firms.
The suit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama and is part of the Lawyers’ Committee’s national initiative to bring state courts into compliance with the Voting Rights Act and promote judicial diversity.
In July, the organization and another set of partners filed a similar suit alleging that the statewide method of electing Texas’s most powerful judges violates the Voting Rights Act.
“The Alabama NAACP continues to fight for equitable representation of all communities in our judicial system at all levels,” said Bernard Simelton, president of the NAACP Alabama State Conference. “Alabama cannot continue to have a system that ignores segments of the community. We believe that a revised method of electing judges will lead to representation of all segments of the community.”
In the history of the state, only two African-Americans have won an election to statewide office. Those who hold seats as appellate judges have all been white for the past 15 years.
“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,” Blacksher said.
The Lawyers’ Committee asserts that Alabama has the sixth-largest black population in the country, with African-Americans making up almost 25 percent of the state’s voting-age population.
“In 1991, the U.S. Supreme Court made clear that the Voting Rights Act applies to judicial elections,” the group said in a statement. “The courts at issue in this case handles cases of all kinds, including important criminal cases. Notably, nearly 63 percent of Alabama’s prison population is black.”
The right to vote is “the right from which all other rights flow,” said Michael Keats, an attorney at Stroock & Stroock & Lavan.
“That right to vote takes on a special significance in electing the judges and justices who define our legal rights and obligations, who adjudicate our guilt and innocence,” Keats said. “A judiciary elected through a racially discriminatory system like Alabama’s deprives African-Americans of their own voice in the administration of justice. That is illegal and this lawsuit will end that discriminatory system.”