Thomas v. Bryant

Decision Date03 September 2019
Docket NumberNo. 19-60133,19-60133
Citation938 F.3d 134
Parties Joseph THOMAS; Vernon Ayers; Melvin Lawson, Plaintiffs–Appellees v. Phil BRYANT, Governor of the State of Mississippi, all in the official capacities of their own offices and in their official capacities as members of the State Board of Election Commissioners; Delbert Hosemann, Secretary of State of the State of Mississippi, all in the official capacities of their own offices and in their official capacities as members of the State Board of Election Commissioners, Defendants–Appellants.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Fifth Circuit

Robert Bruce McDuff, Esq., Beth Levine Orlansky, Mississippi Center for Justice, Jackson, MS, Arusha Gordon, Jon Marshall Greenbaum, Esq., Director, Ezra D. Rosenberg, Esq., Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Washington, DC, Caitlyn E. Silhan, Waters & Kraus, L.L.P., Dallas, TX, Ellis Turnage, Cleveland, MS, for Plaintiffs - Appellees.

Michael Brunson Wallace, Esq., Charles Edward Cowan, Wise Carter Child & Caraway, P.A., Jackson, MS, Brian Parker Berry, Tommie S. Cardin, Butler Snow, L.L.P., Ridgeland, MS, for Defendants - Appellants.

Joseph Henry Ros, Esq., Currie, Johnson & Myers, P.A., Biloxi, MS, Amicus Curiae for JUDICIAL WATCH, INCORPORATED.

Before DAVIS, HIGGINSON, and WILLETT, Circuit Judges.

W. EUGENE DAVIS, Circuit Judge:

Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, as amended in 1982, prohibits state and political subdivisions from redistricting "in a manner which results" in members of a protected class of racial and language minorities "hav[ing] less opportunity than other members of the electorate to participate in the political process and to elect representatives of their choice."1 Plaintiffs challenged the legislative boundaries for Mississippi State Senate District 22, arguing that the district, as drawn in 2012, diluted African-American voting strength. Following a two-day bench trial, the district court concluded that the evidence established a § 2 violation under the standards set forth in Thornburg v. Gingles .2 We AFFIRM the district court’s judgment declaring District 22 violative of § 2 of the Voting Rights Act. The State’s appeal of the district court’s judgment granting injunctive relief is DISMISSED AS MOOT.


At least once every decade, the State of Mississippi redraws its legislative boundaries based in part on the decennial census. In 2012, the Mississippi Legislature realigned the contours of Senate District 22 to stretch over 100 miles, from north to south. The district then consisted of all or part of five counties in the Mississippi Delta—Bolivar, Humphreys, Sharkey, Washington, and Yazoo—as well as parts of one non-Delta county, Madison.3 Since early times, concentrations of African Americans have occupied the Delta area, which has a unique history and character.4

District 22 contains some very poor areas predominantly populated by African Americans. Based on the 2012 redistricting plan, the black voting age population (BVAP) in District 22 was 50.8%. In this district, almost 41.2% of African Americans lived in poverty; their median household income was $23,741. But the district also contained some very wealthy areas, mainly in the southern portion of Madison County, inhabited primarily by white residents. The poverty rate for white residents in District 22 was approximately 8.8%; their median household income was $66,736.

Since 2003, Senate District 22 has been represented by Eugene Clark, who is white. The candidate, whether African-American or not, preferred by African-American voters has not occupied this office in that time.5


On July 9, 2018, three African-American voters of District 22, Joseph Thomas, Melvin Lawson, and Vernon Ayers, filed a complaint under § 2 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) against Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant, Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, and Attorney General Jim Hood, who constitute the State Board of Election Commissioners (collectively, the "State"). Plaintiffs alleged that the boundary lines of District 22, as drawn under the 2012 legislative redistricting plan, diluted African-American voting strength and deprived African-American voters of an equal opportunity to elect candidates of their choice. According to Plaintiffs, the Mississippi Legislature’s "addition of th[e] predominantly white areas from Madison County ... limit[ed] the district’s black voting age population to the present level of 50.8%, which combine[d] with white bloc voting and lower African-American turnout ... dilute[d] African-American voting strength in the district." Plaintiffs contended that "[p]ast elections in Mississippi, particularly in District 22 and its surrounding area, have been marked by a clear pattern of racially polarized voting." Consequently, as Plaintiffs averred, no African-American or African-American-preferred candidate has represented District 22 in its current or previous form, including in 2015, when Plaintiff Thomas ran for the seat but lost, despite garnering a vast majority of African-American votes.

In their complaint, Plaintiffs pointed out that while the State of Mississippi is at least 35% African-American in voting age population, only 25% of the members of the Mississippi Senate are African-American. They maintained that though African Americans made up a majority of the voting age population in District 22, that majority lacked "real electoral opportunity" under Supreme Court precedent interpreting § 2 of the VRA. Plaintiffs contended that District 22 could be redrawn to cure the § 2 violation with changes to only one or two adjacent districts; that the resulting districts would be more compact than in the 2012 plan; and that the alteration would not create Voting Rights Act violations in any other districts. Plaintiffs therefore asked the district court to declare that the 2012 districting plan violated § 2 of the VRA and enjoin the State from conducting any future elections in District 22—including the upcoming November 2019 election—under that plan.


The district court conducted a bench trial from February 6–7, 2019. Under 28 U.S.C. § 2284(a), the State had requested a district court of three judges to hear the case,6 but the court found that provision inapplicable to a standalone § 2 statutory claim.

At trial, Plaintiffs provided demographic analyses and results from elections in 2003, 2007, 2011, and 2015, which showed that Clark (and white-preferred candidates for statewide offices, e.g. , Governor and Secretary of State) consistently beat out candidates preferred by African Americans in District 22. Utilizing ecological inference (EI), Plaintiffs’ expert, Dr. Maxwell Palmer,7 highlighted consistent patterns of bloc voting by white residents and lower election turnout of African Americans. Plaintiffs further proffered evidence about the bleak socioeconomic realities of African Americans in District 22. Plaintiff Thomas, who ran for state senate in 2015, and Plaintiff Lawson also testified about the lack of transportation options to assist African-American voters in traveling to the polls to vote during odd-year elections. Plaintiffs’ other expert, William Cooper,8 presented the district court with three plans that would, in his opinion, increase the BVAP of District 22 while honoring traditional redistricting criteria.

On the other hand, the State’s expert, Dr. Peter Morrison, testified that African Americans have performed well in county and municipal races within District 22 and that African-American voters statewide have higher election turnout than white voters.9 The State argued that District 22, as then drawn, was already a majority-minority district, so no relief was warranted.

Applying the familiar test set forth in Gingles , the district court determined that District 22, as drawn in 2012, did in fact violate § 2 of the VRA. On February 13, 2019, the district court issued an order preliminarily advising the Mississippi Legislature of its conclusion that District 22 did not afford African Americans "an equal opportunity to participate in the political processes and to elect candidates of their choice." The district court noted that Plaintiffs had presented three different plans for redrawing District 22 that would remedy the § 2 violation, but the court acknowledged that the Mississippi Legislature was entitled to the first opportunity to redraw the district.

On February 16, 2019, the district court issued a lengthy opinion, denying the State’s laches defense and concluding that Plaintiffs had proven by a preponderance of the evidence that the boundaries of Mississippi Senate District 22 violated § 2.10 The court, however, declined to order any specific relief "while the Mississippi Legislature consider[ed] whether to redraw the District and extend the qualification deadline."11

The State thereafter appealed the district court’s order and filed a motion for stay pending appeal in this court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1292(a)(1), which provides appellate jurisdiction over a district court’s interlocutory order granting an injunction.

On February 21, 2019, the district court conducted a teleconference, joined by Secretary of State Hosemann; the parties "convinced the Court that no further hearings were necessary" regarding remedies.12 On February 26, 2019, the State further informed the district court that the Mississippi Legislature "would take up the Court’s suggestion to redraw District 22 only if the motions for stay were denied [at the district court] and in the Fifth Circuit."13 On that same day, however, noting that the Mississippi Legislature had not redrawn the boundaries of District 22, the district court granted Plaintiffsmotion to extend the qualification deadline from March 1, 2019 to March 15, 2019. The district court also redrew the boundaries of District 22. Specifically, the district court adopted Plaintiffs"Illustrative Plan 1," which affected the boundaries of Districts 22 and 23. Finally, the district court...

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