The Georgia Legislative Black Caucus filed a lawsuit Monday against the state of Georgia seeking to dissolve the city charters of Dunwoody, Sandy Springs, Johns Creek, Milton and Chattahoochee Hills. Further, the lawmakers, joined by civil rights leader the Rev. Joseph Lowery, aim to dash any hopes of a Milton County.
The lawsuit, filed in a North Georgia U.S. District Court Monday, claims that the state circumvented the normal legislative process and set aside its own criteria when creating the “super-majority white ” cities within Fulton and DeKalb counties. The result, it argues, is to dilute minority votes in those areas, violating the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution.
“This suit is based on the idea that African Americans and other minorities can elect the people of their choice,” said Democratic State Sen. Vincent Fort.
The Office of the Governor and the Office of the Attorney General declined comment pending further review of the case.
Rep. Lynne Riley, R-Johns Creek, called the lawsuit “frivolous” and “disrespectful to the citizens of these cities who are most satisfied with their government.”
Riley was active in creating Sandy Springs and the subsequent cities while serving as a Fulton County commissioner.
“These jurisdictions were based on geography and nothing else,” she said. “We haven’t seen any evidence of any disadvantage based on the creation of new cities. We’ve watched the Fulton County budget continue to grow … to say there was damage done by this creation, there are no facts to support that, and I would reject it.”
Lead attorney Jerome Lee, of Taylor Lee & Associates, said the suit is novel.
“The Voting Rights Act forbids a state from doing anything that affects the voting rights of minorities, except with a permissible purpose,” he said, citing the redistricting that takes place when the census documents population shifts. “In this case, it’s different because the state actually went outside the normal redistricting process and created these cities that have no meaningful state purpose.”
According to the 2010 census, Fulton County is 44.5 percent white and 44.1 percent black. About 54 percent of DeKalb County residents are black, and 33.3 percent are white.
Sandy Springs, created in 2005, is 65 percent white and 20 percent black. Milton, formed a year later, is 76.6 percent white and 9 percent black. Johns Creek, also formed that year, is 63.5 percent white and 9.2 percent black. Chattahoochee Hills, formed in 2007, is 68.6 percent white and 28 percent black, while Dunwoody, created in 2008, is 69.8 percent white and 12.6 percent black.
Emory University law professor Michael Kang said the case is unique because the Voting Rights Act focuses on redistricting, whereas this lawsuit challenges the legality of cities. Kang, who has not reviewed the case in its entirety, said the plaintiffs will likely have to show evidence of discriminatory purpose to have a strong claim. Kane said the case has interesting implications.
“If we look at this realistically, there is some white flight going on. The creation of these Sandy Springs-type cities enables white voters to get away from black voters,” he said. “It does strike me that the Voting Rights Act might have something to say about this, but it’s unknown what the courts will say about it.”
Johns Creek Mayor Mike Bodker had not reviewed the suit, but he said he doesn’t believe it has merit.
“This discussion was debated even back then [when the city was formed], and it failed to pass muster back then, so I don’t know why it would be different today,” he said. “It seems the clock has run on this issue.”
Lee expressed hope that the involved parties could work out a compromise outside of dissolution of the cities.
“There is a fundamental issue here that needs to really be addressed. I don’t know who the person is to forge the path forward. In theory it’s our governor and commander in chief, but I don’t know if anyone is willing to risk the political capital necessary to sit down and hammer out a solution on this,” Lee said.