Lawsuit seeks to balance Alabama’s all-white courts

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A civil rights group is suing over Alabama’s system of electing appellate judges by statewide vote, which they contend has resulted in vote dilution and yielded all-white courts despite the fact Alabama has the sixth-largest black population in the country, where one of every four people is African-American.

The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (Lawyers’ Committee), filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Alabama State Conference of the NAACP and four individual black voters alleging that the method of electing Alabama’s most powerful judges violates the Voting Rights Act.

The suit maintains Alabama’s statewide method of electing members of the Alabama Supreme Court, Court of Criminal Appealsand Court of Civil Appeals deprives the African-American community of the ability to elect any judges of their choice.

“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, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee. “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.”

The Supreme Court of Alabama has nine members and is the state’s court of last resort. Alabama’s intermediate appellate courts, the Court of Criminal Appeals and the Court of Civil Appeals, each has five members. All 19 judges are elected statewide.

Currently, all 19 judges are white.

“The Alabama NAACP continues to fight for equitable representation of all communities in our judicial system at all levels,” said Benard Simelton, president of the Alabama NAACP. “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.”

“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,” said James Blacksher, long-time Alabama civil rights attorney and partner in the lawsuit.

In the history of Alabama, only two African-Americans have won an election to statewide office. Every other black statewide candidate has been defeated by a white candidate. Alabama’s appellate judges have been all-white for 15 years.

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