Lawsuit Challenges Racial Makeup of Alabama Courts
Last week, a federal judge rejected motions to dismiss a lawsuit filed against the state of Alabama and Secretary of State John Merrill by the NAACP and the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. The suit alleges that the current system used to elect state judges disenfranchises black voters. Instead of holding statewide elections for the state’s 19 appellate judges, the groups want Alabama to create districts in which judges are elected.
Alabama has three appellate courts—the state Supreme Court, Court of Criminal Appeals and Court of Civil Appeals. One-quarter of Alabama’s population is black, and while all 19 of the judges in those courts are white, they were elected by the people of Alabama.
In his assessment of the lawsuit, District Judge W. Keith Watkins claimed that the state’s desire to maintain the current system cannot outweigh its responsibility to ensure that every group has the right to vote.
“Defendants appear to argue that the degree to which Alabama’s electoral system may have diluted the black vote is irrelevant because, no matter how extreme the vote dilution, the interest of minority citizens to participate in the democratic process can never outweigh the state’s interest in maintaining the status quo.”
Alabama is one of only five states that holds statewide elections for appellate courts using partisan elections. Other states use a variety of ways to elect appellate judges, from gubernatorial appointment to nonpartisan elections.
According to the motion filed by Secretary of State John Merrill, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that states are not required to create districts for judicial elections. Merrill’s motion argues that since judges rule on issues across the entire state, they should be elected in statewide elections.
While Merrill could not comment on the lawsuit, he did tell Yellowhammer that his goal is to register as many people to vote in Alabama as possible. As I’ve said before, Merrill stated, “We want to ensure that each and evey eligible U.S. citizen that’s a resident of our state is registered to vote and has a photo I.D.”