Lawsuit accuses Tennessee of ‘racially discriminatory’ redistricting

A group of civil rights organizations and Tennessee residents filed a lawsuit Wednesday challenging the state’s recently enacted congressional and state Senate redistricting plans, asserting that the state violated the U.S. Constitution by diluting the voting power of African Americans and other voters of color in the state.

The lawsuit, filed in a U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee, challenges aspects of the congressional and state Senate redistricting boundaries signed into law by Gov. Bill Lee (R-Tenn.) in February 2022, which the plaintiffs argue unfairly fractured the power of Black voters and other minority voters in the Nashville and Memphis areas. Specifically, the plaintiffs have taken issue with the three-way split of Davidson County — home of Nashville — in the latest congressional map, as well as the splitting of Senate District 31 in Shelby County, which includes Memphis.

The lawsuit was brought by the Tennessee State Conference of the NAACP, the African American Clergy Collective of Tennessee, the Equity Alliance, the League of Women Voters of Tennessee and individual Tennesseans. A number of Tennessee state officials — the governor, Secretary of State Tre Hargett, election coordinator Mark Goins, the state’s election commission and each of the commission’s seven members — are named as defendants in the suit.

The newly drawn boundaries, plaintiffs argue in the suit, “dilute the votes of Black voters and other voters of color by ‘cracking’ and ‘packing’ these communities to minimize their electoral voices.” The plaintiffs say the Tennessee Capitol — which maintains a Republican supermajority — intentionally discriminated against Black and minority voters by breaking up the districts.

The Tennessee attorney general’s office, which represents the state in lawsuits, said in a statement Wednesday evening that the complaint had not yet been formally reviewed.

“The plaintiffs chose to go to the press before serving us with the complaint; we will review it once served,” Brandon Smith, the attorney general office’s chief of staff, said in a statement. Representatives for the governor’s office did not respond to requests for comment, while the secretary of state’s office referred The Washington Post to the attorney general for comment.

The lawsuit states that the congressional map splits Nashville’s Davidson County into three separate congressional districts “while pulling into each of them predominantly White, rural populations from neighboring counties.”

“This destroyed a previously functioning crossover district … that had reliably elected voters of color’s candidates of choice for nearly two decades,” the filing says in reference to the 5th Congressional District’s old boundaries. “It also subordinated traditional redistricting — such as core retention, maintaining communities of interest and political subdivisions whole, and compactness — to race.”

The Nashville area’s split has resulted in three GOP-led congressional districts, flipping the 5th district last November to Rep. Andrew Ogles (R) and giving the state’s delegation in the House an 8-1 Republican majority. The seat was previously held by Jim Cooper (D) for two decades, but he did not run for reelection and accused Republicans of “dismembering” his district.

Plaintiff Judy Cummings, who had long resided in the 5th district before the latest map and has been active with a number of civic engagement groups bringing forward the lawsuit, said on a call with reporters that the damage the plan has done to the political influence of Tennesseans of color is “truly devastating.” And according to the lawsuit, plaintiff Ruby Powell-Dennis — a resident of an increasingly diverse neighborhood previously within Senate District 31 — planned to run as a Democratic nominee in the district but had to move back into the district to continue with her campaign when the lines were redrawn to exclude her neighborhood, Cordova.

“This is a lawsuit about race, the impact of splitting the voting power in my community and the state of Tennessee simply making it harder for Black and Brown people in Cordova to vote for who we want to represent us. After redistricting, leaders diluted the votes of Black and Brown voters in SD-31 because we almost selected our candidate of choice in 2018,” Powell-Dennis said on the call. “The new map breaks up our communities of interest with a focus on Cordova because of our voting power. Because of redistricting, it is now improbable for me as a voter to elect a candidate who represents my interests.”

Carrie Archie Russell, a principal senior lecturer at Vanderbilt University, emphasized the impact the state legislature’s supermajority has had on the maps.

“When you have a supermajority, there is no incentive to cooperate or to negotiate with the other side. You don’t have to … and in situations like that, our best hope to protect [the] civil rights and liberties of citizens is the court system to exercise its ability to check the state legislature,” she told The Washington Post. Despite the conservative supermajority in the state, Russell pointed out, nearly 40 percent of Tennessee voters cast their ballot for Joe Biden in 2020, though Donald Trump prevailed in the state.

The Tennessee lawsuit is the latest of legal challenges across the country aiming to restore the political power of minority voters, especially Black voters, after redistricting efforts that took place after the 2020 U.S. Census.

Earlier this summer, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Alabama legislature drew congressional districts that unlawfully diluted the political power of its Black residents, citing violations of the Voting Rights Act. Pooja Chaudhuri, counsel at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which is representing the plaintiffs in the Tennessee lawsuit, said that the complaints brought in the Tennessee case “don’t necessarily coincide with the decision that came out in Milligan.”

Last October, a three-judge panel struck down the boundaries of South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District, finding that they were in violation of the 14th Amendment. In May, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case during their next term.

Both cases claim their states engaged in racial gerrymandering, creating legislative maps which violated the Constitution by diluting the power of Black voters.

“The South Carolina case is absolutely relevant to our case. … They’re very similar, both brought under the 14th and 15th Amendments. So the outcome of that case will certainly be relevant to this case. And we are following it very, very closely,” Chaudhuri said.

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