MONTGOMERY, Ala. – The Alabama Legislature has made history by designing new districts for its members and getting the U.S. Justice Department to approve them as racially fair.
The Justice Department cleared Alabama's new House districts late Monday afternoon, Assistant Attorney General Jack Park said. The new Senate districts passed Justice Department scrutiny on Oct. 15.
The Legislature is supposed to design new districts for itself after each census, but never before has the Legislature designed new districts for itself and had them cleared by the Justice Department on the first try. In the past, the Legislature either failed to agree on districts or had it district designs rejected by the Justice Departments or the courts as racially unfair.
"It is historic because the Legislature set out to do something that had never been done before," said Rep. Marcel Black, the chief designer of the House districts.
House Speaker Seth Hammett said Monday night he was delighted with the historic accomplishment. He said the next step is to defend the new districts against several court suits, beginning Thursday with a federal court hearing in Mobile.
"I feel we will prevail there, too," Hammett, D-Andalusia, said.
Black, D-Tuscumbia, agreed. "We followed the recipes the courts had laid out for successful plans," he said.
The 1965 Voting Rights Law requires Alabama and other Southern states to submit any changes in voting laws to the U.S. Justice Department to make sure the changes don't disenfranchise black voters.
Joe Reed, chairman of the black Alabama Democratic Conference, had asked the Justice Department to reject the new House districts because of changes in one predominantly black district and because the House ended Alabama's practice of tucking three House districts within one Senate district.
The Legislature approved the new House and Senate districts in a special session that ended July 2. The approval came on party line votes because the plan is designed to maintain the Democrats' 24-11 margin in the Senate and 68-37 lead in the House.
Alabama Democrats have controlled both houses since 1874, and Alabama is one of 16 states where Democrats have a majority in both houses of the Legislature.
The new plan also maintains the current number of predominantly black districts: eight in the Senate and 27 in the House. But in the House, the south Alabama district represented by black Rep. Locy Baker, D-Abbeville, becomes majority white, and the southeast Alabama district represented by white Rep. Billy Beasley, D-Clayton, becomes majority black.
Some Republicans contend in a court suit that the districts are illegally designed because some fast-growing predominantly white districts have far more people than some slow-growing predominantly black districts. The biggest variance in the Senate is 12,360 people.