The federal voting rights lawsuit challenging the way Gwinnett’s commission and school board districts are drawn isn’t particularly close to being resolved – and the county has already spent somewhere north of $1 million to defend the case in court.
In a status conference with Judge Amy Totenberg earlier this month, A. Lee Parks, who is representing Gwinnett County Public Schools, said attorney fees are mounting, “and we haven’t even had an evidentiary hearing.”
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The Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, the Georgia NAACP and a group of local residents filed the lawsuit in August 2016, saying Gwinnett’s commission and school board districts are drawn to dilute the influence of black, Latino and Asian voters. Gwinnett is a majority-minority county but has never had a non-white member elected to its commission or its school board.
None of the county’s four commission districts has a majority-minority population, the suit argues, and only one out of five school board districts does. The lawsuit asks for the county to redraw the districts.
Jerry Gonzalez, the director of GALEO, said Gwinnett is wasting taxpayer money to fight the suit.
“Despite the overwhelming cost to taxpayers, Gwinnett County continues to defend an electoral scheme that dilutes minority voting participation and may likely be in violation of the Voting Rights Act,” Gonzalez said. “The county continues to act against the best interests of all in Gwinnett, but especially against African-Americans, Asian-Americans and Latinos.”
A spokesman for Gwinnett County declined to comment on the cost of defending the case, citing a policy of not discussing pending litigation. A statement issued Tuesday by Gwinnett County Public Schools did not confirm or deny the specifics of Parks’ comments about the cost of the litigation.
But it did fire back at those criticizing the purported price tag.
“It is ironic that those questioning the costs are the ones who have sued the county and school district, necessitating the costs,” the emailed statement from GCPS spokeswoman Sloan Roach said.
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Earlier this month, Totenberg shot down GALEO and the NAACP’s request to set an April trial date so the case can be settled before the May 22 primary elections (which will include both commission and school board seats). The groups had also threatened to file an injunction to try to stop those elections if a trial isn’t held.
It was unclear if the parties were still weighing the pursuit of such an injunction, but Totenberg called their proposed timeline unrealistic. If a new scheduling order issued this week is followed, the earliest a trial would be held likely would be the end of June.
“I am not going to basically be cutting corners on something that is important,” Totenberg said in court earlier this month.
The judge has also denied Gwinnett County’s most recent motion to have the case dismissed entirely.
Among other things, the county has essentially argued that the federal Voting Rights Act, which the suit was filed under, is meant to protect single minority groups from discrimination — not a “coalition” of three minority groups.
A significant part of the case for GALEO and the NAACP will be attempting to prove that black, Latino and Asian Gwinnettians tend to vote for the same candidates.
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