On September 7, 2016, the Lawyers’ Committee filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Alabama State Conference of the NAACP and four black voters alleging that the method of electing Alabama’s most powerful judges violates the Voting Rights Act (VRA). 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 the ability to elect any judges of their choice. Currently, all 19 of Alabama’s appellate judges are white.
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. Because white Alabamians comprise the majority of the voting age population in the state, and because of racially polarized voting, black-preferred candidates are consistently defeated in elections involving the highest levels of the state’s judiciary. Such vote dilution is prohibited by the VRA, and the state could easily devise a fairer electoral system.
The Lawyers’ Committee filed the suit in partnership with James Blacksher and Edward Still, two long-time Alabama civil rights attorneys, Montgomery-based attorney J. Mitch McGuire, as well as with pro bono counsel Crowell & Moring LLP and Stroock & Stroock & Lavan LLP. 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 VRA and promote judicial diversity. 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.
Alabama has the sixth largest black population in the country with African Americans comprising almost 25% of the state’s voting age population. However, with voting polarized along racial lines, African Americans have been underrepresented on the three courts at issue for decades. In 1991, the U.S. Supreme Court made clear that the VRA applies to judicial elections.
The courts at issue in this case handle cases of all kinds, including important criminal cases. Notably, nearly 63% of Alabama’s prison population is black.
The State of Alabama has filed a motion to dismiss the case. That motion is now pending before the court.