By Jarvis Dortch
Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi
It’s jarring to look at a photo of Mississippi’s eight statewide elected officials and not see a single Black individual. The Blackest state in the union, with a nearly 40% Black population, has never elected an African-American to statewide office.
Unfortunately, the picture doesn’t get much better when you step down from statewide offices. The nine members of the State Supreme Court are elected from three districts. Three justices serve eight-year terms in each district. In all, 93 individuals have served on the Court. Only four have been Black, and none have been Black women.
In fact, only one of the four Black justices at a time has served on the Court since the drawing of the Supreme Court districts in 1987. Further, each Black justice was first appointed, by a governor, to the Court. This means no Black candidate, who was not first appointed to the bench, has ever been elected to the State Supreme Court.
Despite nearly four decades of population change, the legislature has taken no meaningful steps to correct the district lines. In fact, Black lawmakers objected to the maps when they were adopted in 1967. Clearly, they were correct that the Supreme Court districts, as they are, dilute Black voting strength in Mississippi.
Because these districts prevent Black voters from electing Supreme Court candidates of their choice, the American Civil Liberties Union and ACLU of Mississippi, along with our co-counsel, have a lawsuit in federal court on behalf of individual Black civic leaders, challenging Mississippi’s Supreme Court districts.
Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act makes it illegal for states to draw district lines that water down the voting strength of voters from minority racial groups. That is precisely what Mississippi’s Supreme Court election district lines do. Black voters comprise a majority of the population in certain regions of the state, such as the Mississippi Delta and the state capital of Jackson. Still, Black voters do not comprise a majority in any of the current three Supreme Court districts.
Black voters are split across the three Supreme Court districts in a way that doesn’t allow them to be the majority in any of those districts, providing them with virtually no opportunity (and indeed not an equal opportunity) to elect candidates of choice to the state Supreme Court. That is classic vote dilution.
This lawsuit is not about reaching a specific number or quota. We need Mississippians of all races to have faith and trust in our institutions. Perhaps that trust is needed most in our courts. When Black Mississippians see themselves pictured in every element of daily life but missing in almost every photo of state leadership, you cannot be surprised that we lack confidence in our state government.
We are challenging these district lines because representation really does matter. It matters because it instills trust in government.
Moreover, representation matters because it is evidence of what is possible. It is the visible proof a young person may need to stay and work for a better Mississippi. We are bringing this case so every Mississippian can look at the pictures of our state leaders, including our Supreme Court, and see a reflection of themselves.