Charge of racism in redistricting resurrected

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th District ruled in favor of three African-American Youngstown residents who contended a federal judge erred when he dismissed a case seeking to invalidate the state’s congressional map because it disenfranchised black voters in the Mahoning Valley.

The appeals court Tuesday vacated a 2022 decision by U.S. District Court Judge John R. Adams to dismiss the case, reversed his order denying a motion for a three-judge court to hear the matter and remanded the case back to the district court “with directions for it immediately to initiate the procedures to convene a three-judge court.”

The decision won’t impact this year’s congressional election, but it could have major ramifications for future congressional elections if the lower-court panel rules the lines were drawn in violation of federal laws.

Regardless of the court’s decision, the congressional boundaries have to be redrawn for the 2026 election. But if it rules the current lines disenfranchise black voters, the court case could play a significant role.

Also, there is a movement to get a constitutional amendment on the Nov. 5 ballot to take redistricting out of the hands of politicians starting with the 2026 election.

“It’s a positive sign and a victory,” said the Rev. Kenneth Simon, the lead plaintiff and senior pastor of New Bethel Baptist Church in Youngstown. “There’s justice in this case. The current system is not fair to people. Districts need to be drawn fairly and not gerrymandered.”

The lawsuit contends the congressional map approved by the Ohio Redistricting Commission in 2022 disenfranchised black voters in the Mahoning Valley by splitting Youngstown and Warren — where a majority of local African-Americans reside — when they had been in the same district for decades.

Also, the lawsuit states that putting Mahoning County, where Youngstown is located, voters “into a racially polarized voting district (the 6th Congressional District) 165 miles long comprised of 10 counties” violated the U.S. Constitution and the Voting Rights Act. The 6th District is overwhelmingly white.

All of Trumbull County, where Warren is located, was put into the 14th Congressional District, which also is overwhelmingly white.

In previous filings, the plaintiffs proposed a district of Mahoning and Trumbull along with “more racially diverse” adjacent counties.

The lawsuit, filed by attorney Percy Squire, sought to have a three-member judicial panel in the U.S. District Court’s Northern District of Ohio consider the case.

But U.S. District Court Judge John R. Adams rejected that lawsuit in 2022 after adopting a decision from Magistrate Judge Amanda M. Knapp.

The lawsuit pointed out that the Republican-controlled Ohio Redistricting Commission did not take racial demographics into account when it drew the map. The Ohio Supreme Court found the commission’s congressional districts to be unconstitutional twice, but the second ruling came after the 2022 primary.

The parties in that lawsuit didn’t appeal the boundaries before the March 19 primary because Democrats actually did better than expected in 2022 — winning five of the state’s 15 congressional districts. Before redistricting, Democrats held four of 16 districts. Ohio lost a congressional seat because the state’s population didn’t grow as fast as the rest of the country.

While this lawsuit only sought to change the district lines for the 6th Congressional District, it essentially seeks to change all 15 districts as adjustments to the boundaries of the 6th would force changes to all districts for balance. That was the argument by the Ohio Attorney General’s Office, which represents the Ohio Redistricting Commission in this case.

“Sometimes our judicial system doesn’t work so you have to keep appealing until the justice system is fair to the people,” Simon said. “Fortunately, that’s what happened. It’s good news.”

The appeals court ruled that Adams erred when he determined the 14th Amendment and the Voting Rights Act weren’t violated.

The act, approved in 1965, prohibits voting practices that discriminate on the basis of race, color or language.

The amendment grants equal civil and legal rights to African-Americans to include them under the phrase “all persons born or naturalized in the United States.”

The appeals court said Adams should have agreed to have a three-judge panel hear the case. That now will happen with the chief justice of the Northern District appointing two other judges to sit on the case with Adams.

Any appeals of the judicial panel’s decision would go directly to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Ohio Attorney General’s Office didn’t have a comment Tuesday on the court ruling.

But in a Jan. 25 filing, Bryan Lee, an assistant attorney general in the constitutional offices section and the attorney of record, wrote that “the district court correctly held that a three-judge panel was not required because appellants’ claims are wholly unsubstantial,” and they “failed to state a claim because they failed to allege any intentional discrimination.”

The appeals court ruled the request for the three-judge court “was an improper evaluation of the strength of the allegations in the complaint.”

Besides Simon, who is also chairman of the Community Mobilization Committee, the two other plaintiffs are Helen Youngblood, a community activist and former labor leader who is chairwoman of the Mahoning Valley 1619 Project, and the Rev. Lewis W. Macklin II, lead pastor of Holy Trinity Missionary Baptist Church.

Have an interesting story? Contact David Skolnick by email at dskolnick@vindy.com. Follow him on X, formerly Twitter, @dskolnick.


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