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U.S. Appeals Court To Hear Hattiesburg Ward Case

A federal appeals court will hear arguments Aug. 3 on whether the counting of university students in Hattiesburg’s population diluted minority participation on the city council.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans has been asked to overturn a Mississippi judge’s ruling that the city did not violate the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by including dormitory students in population calculations used to draw the city’s wards.

Some Hattiesburg residents sued the city in 2006 to remove college students from the population mix. They want new wards drawn to reflect 2006 Census data that suggested blacks would comprise at least 55 percent of the total voting age population when transient students were excluded.

The plaintiffs said the city council unfairly included more than 3,000 transient students at the University of Southern Mississippi and William Carey University in the equation used to redraw Hattiesburg wards in 2002.

They contend the counting of the students meant Hattiesburg’s Black population was concentrated in two wards, while three others were majority White.

U.S. District Judge Keith Starrett ruled in 2008 that the plaintiffs did not show that Hattiesburg’s new wards violate the one-person, one-vote principle. Starrett said it would impossible to draw three majority-Black city wards without excluding the students.

The city, in court documents, said the plaintiffs did not prove any discrimination. The city said removing the dormitory students from the population is “an impermissible method”’ of calculating the number of residents. The city said the plaintiffs want to spread the student population among five wards, which cannot legally be done.

Part of both sides’ argument centers on the U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1986 in a North Carolina redistricting lawsuit, called the Gringles case. In that decision, the justices made it easier for Blacks and other minorities to challenge redistricting plans that may dilute their voting strength.

In that case, the Supreme Court set three conditions required to prove a case of vote dilution in violation of the Voting Rights Act. The factors were: the minority group was sufficiently numerous and geographically compact to form a majority in a single-member district (compactness); the minority group was politically cohesive (racial bloc voting); and the White majority usually voted as a bloc sufficient to defeat the minority’s preferred candidate (racially polarized voting).

Hattiesburg argued in its brief that its ward lines do not violate that decision.

The city argued plaintiffs failed to show that three geographically compact wards with majority-Black voting age populations could be created without excluding the University of Southern Mississippi and William Carey dormitory residents.

“Therefore, plaintiffs have failed to prove … that the minority group is sufficiently large and geographically compact to constitute a voting age majority in a single member district,” the city said in its briefs.

The plaintiffs claim the city did violate the Voting Rights Act by dumping all the university students into one ward and diluting Black voting strength in that ward. If drawn differently, the plaintiffs argued that three majority-Black wards could be created even if the college students were included.

The plaintiffs contend the city packed Black voters into two city wards with minority population majorities of more than 70 percent.

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