Georgia special legislative session on tap for the holidays after judge tosses political maps
Sen. John Kennedy, who chaired the Senate Redistricting Committee, argued during a 2021 special session that the GOP-drawn maps are fair to all Georgians. State lawmakers have been directed by a federal judge to draw new maps. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder
The governor has called a special session to draw new political maps after a federal judge struck down Georgia’s congressional and legislative boundary lines as racially discriminatory and blocked the state from using the maps in future elections.
Gov. Brian Kemp set Nov. 29 as the date for state lawmakers to return to Atlanta for a redistricting do-over after U.S. District Court Judge Steve C. Jones ruled Thursday that the state’s 2021 maps illegally dilute Black voting strength and violate Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.
But an appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit could also still happen even as the state’s leaders prepare for a special session that is now just a little over a month away. A spokesperson for Attorney General Chris Carr said Thursday that the office was reviewing the order and the legal options.
State lawmakers were also given a deadline to act, though. In his opinion, Jones gave the state until Dec. 8 to adopt new plans for the congressional and legislative districts that will give Black Georgians a fair chance to elect their preferred candidates.
The 516-page ruling could affect the balance of power on the national level – where Republicans hold a fragile majority in the U.S. House – and shrink the already tightening margins under the Gold Dome.
Specifically, Jones said the new plans should include an additional majority Black congressional district in west metro Atlanta. Under the existing map, Republicans gained a seat after it reshaped the 6th District in the northern Atlanta suburbs to favor a conservative candidate.
The judge also directed lawmakers to create seven additional majority Black legislative districts: including two Senate and three House districts in metro Atlanta and two House districts in the Macon area. Black voters in Georgia vote for Democrats at high rates.
Attorneys for the Black voters and civil rights and religious groups challenging the maps had argued the 2021 maps do not reflect the growth of Georgia’s Black population over the last decade, and Jones agreed.
The number of Black Georgians grew by about 484,000 people since 2010, with 33% of the state now identifying as Black. The number of white Georgians dropped by 52,000 over the last decade.
“The Court commends Georgia for the great strides that it has made to increase the political opportunities of Black voters in the 58 years since the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965,” Jones wrote. “Despite these great gains, the Court determines that in certain areas of the State, the political process is not equally open to Black voters.
“For example, in the past decade, all of Georgia’s population growth was attributable to the minority population, however, the number of majority-Black congressional and legislative districts remained the same.”
The state’s attorneys defended the maps as the product of a political process that protected the GOP majority and prioritized incumbency. They pointed to outcomes at the ballot box in recent years, such as U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock’s electoral success statewide, to show that Georgia’s system is equally open to all.
The voters and groups behind the challenge celebrated the ruling and called on state lawmakers to move quickly to address the violations of the Voting Rights Act.
The opinion applied to three lawsuits that were consolidated and at the center of a nearly two-week trial that took place last month.
“This ruling is a victory for Black voters in Georgia, and for anyone who believes voting should be fair,” said Sophia Lin Lakin, director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, which represented one of the groups of plaintiffs. “This decision confirms that Black voters were illegally shut out of political opportunities in the state. The court’s ruling is a vital step in ensuring that Black Georgians can participate in the political process on equal terms.”
Attention turned quickly Thursday to how GOP state leaders will respond. In Alabama, state officials resisted the court’s directive to create a new majority Black district, or something close to it, even after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the state. That Supreme Court decision left Section 2 of Voting Rights Act intact and was referenced in Thursday’s ruling here.
“The state has the right to appeal. I doubt that will go very far because the Supreme Court has already made it pretty clear where they stand on this issue. Alabama tried to do that, it didn’t work well for them,” said Stephanie Jackson Ali, policy director with the New Georgia Project Action Fund.
If Georgia officials are “unable or unwilling” to adopt new satisfactory plans, Jones said the court will do it for them.
“We are thrilled that the Court struck down Georgia’s congressional and state legislative maps today and outlined a clear process by which Georgia voters will get relief before the 2024 election, whether or not Georgia’s General Assembly chooses to comply with this order,” said Abha Khanna, a partner with the Elias Law Group.
Other than the governor’s proclamation calling for the special session, there was little indication Thursday how state officials would proceed. State leaders were mostly tight-lipped Thursday.
Georgia Senate Republicans issued a statement criticizing the ruling: “Obviously, we strongly disagree with the ruling and expect that all legal options will be explored to maintain the maps as passed by the legislature.”
Former U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who leads the conservative Greater Georgia organization, blasted the opinion.
“Today’s ruling by the Obama-appointed U.S. District Court judge is a disappointing but unsurprising victory for liberal activists attempting to interfere in next year’s elections,” she said. “Greater Georgia expects a successful appeal and that partisan efforts to undermine our state’s legislative and congressional races ahead of 2024 will be dismissed.”
The governor’s decision to quickly call the special session just hours after the ruling suggests Kemp is not looking to dig in, said Amy Steigerwalt, who is the department chair of political science at Georgia State University. That reaction, she said, is in line with Kemp’s approach to “stay above the fray” when it comes to election-related disputes.
But it remains to be seen how other state leaders, like Lt. Gov. Burt Jones and House Speaker Jon Burns, will respond. Both were new to their roles this year and did not preside over the 2021 special session when the maps were drawn. Spokespeople for both declined to comment Thursday.
Still, Steigerwalt said Alabama’s response to the court’s order is likely not an indicator of what’s to come in Georgia.
“Alabama’s resistance was, in an historical sense, extreme. We don’t normally see that level of state resistance and at times simple unwillingness to follow a court order, and I don’t see Georgia trying to do that,” Steigerwalt said.
Georgia Recorder reporter Ross Williams contributed to this report.
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