Lawsuit Challenges Alleged Racial Gerrymandering in Tennessee’s Congressional Redistricting

by Scotty T. Reid, BTRN – A collective of Tennessee voters, led by former state Senator Brenda Gilmore, has initiated legal proceedings on Wednesday contesting the newly proposed congressional district maps in the state. The lawsuit claims that the redistricting carried out in early 2022 is deliberately discriminatory towards Black voters and undermines the influence of communities of color in the electoral process.

The lawsuit, which was filed in federal court in Nashville, specifically highlights the efforts of the Republican supermajority to fragment Davidson County into three separate congressional districts and the division of state Senate District 31 in Shelby County.

This legal action in Tennessee follows closely after a situation in Alabama, where the Republican-controlled legislature rejected requests, and as critics assert, a decision by the Supreme Court, to create an additional congressional district with a majority Black population. Instead, the redistricting was orchestrated to maintain favor for their own political party. Across the nation, gerrymandering and the dilution of the Black vote have emerged as pivotal strategies for the Republican party.

The lawsuit contends that the recently devised maps in Tennessee constitute unconstitutional racial gerrymandering. This is attributed to the division of a predominantly Black, urban voting populace centered in Davidson County. The division redistributes this population into three predominantly white, rural districts, each with distinct “social, cultural, policy, and community-oriented concerns.”

Brenda Gilmore expressed her concerns during an online press conference, stating, “This redistricting plan ripped neighborhoods like mine apart. The legislature did it for the sole purpose of preventing us from coming together to elect candidates who we choose.”

Gloria Sweet-Love, the president of the Tennessee State Conference of the NAACP, remarked, “Tennessee’s redistricting plan greatly harms African-American voters… The plan uses a perverse approach to gerrymandering, seemingly motivated by race, that undermines the equal protection of African-Americans and dilutes the African-American vote. There is no constitutional justification for supporting the state legislature’s senate and congressional redistricting plan. Allowing these plans to survive will establish a dangerous precedent.”

A coalition of civil rights groups, including the League of Women Voters of Tennessee, Equity Alliance, African American Clergy Collective of Tennessee, and Memphis A. Philip Randolph Institute, have united in support of the lawsuit against the state.

The legal representation for the plaintiffs includes Nashville attorney Philip F. Cramer, alongside the Southern Coalition for Social Justice based in Durham, North Carolina, and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law located in Washington.

The transformation of Davidson County from a single, predominantly Democratic congressional district to three GOP-dominated districts is a significant shift. In the November elections, U.S. Representative Andy Ogles, R-Columbia, secured the 5th Congressional District seat, altering the district’s political affiliation and granting Republicans an 8-1 advantage in the state’s congressional delegation.

The assertions presented in this lawsuit echo those made in another legal case filed in Davidson County court in February. The earlier lawsuit went to trial earlier in the year, though a verdict is still pending. In that instance, three private citizens, the plaintiffs, deemed the redrawing of state House and Senate maps as gerrymandered and “facially unconstitutional.”

The plaintiffs accused the Republicans of excessively dividing cities and counties during the redistricting process and disregarding a provision in the Tennessee Constitution that mandates consecutive numbering for senatorial districts in counties with multiple districts. The specific districts under scrutiny are the four state Senate districts of Davidson County, numbered 17, 19, 20, and 21.

This case was heard before a panel of three judges in April.

Warnings from advocates in Nashville and leaders within the Black community about the potential consequences of splitting Davidson County have proven true. The Black population in the 5th Congressional District has significantly diminished following the redistricting. The proportion of Black voters in the previous 5th District dropped from nearly 25% to just under 12% in the reconfigured 5th District.

In the 6th and 7th congressional districts, which also encompass Davidson County, the Black population stands at less than 10% and approximately 16%, respectively.

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