Fulton asks Holder to battle new districts

Fulton County has asked U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to file a lawsuit to overturn new County Commission districts approved by the Georgia General Assembly this spring.

In a letter to Holder sent earlier this week, Commission Chairman John Eaves urged the attorney general to take action against a redistricting plan Democrats say illegally dilutes the power of minority voters. The plan’s backers say it gives north Fulton residents the representation they deserve.

The move is Fulton County’s first legal salvo since Tuesday’s U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning a key provision of the Voting Rights Act. Legal experts say the ruling will allow the new commission districts to take effect immediately.

“As home to the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King Jr., as well as countless others who so nobly first drew attention to the need to pass the landmark Voting Rights Act, it is essential that minority voters not be diluted as we are in these recently drawn (commission) maps,” Eaves wrote to Holder.

With the assistance of members of Georgia’s congressional delegation, Eaves hopes to soon meet with Holder in person to make his case.

Republicans in the General Assembly who support the redrawn districts say they’re confident they will pass legal muster.

On Friday Rep. Ed Lindsey, R-Atlanta, said the redistricting proposal is constitutional. He said any attempt to challenge it “would be frivolous and without merit.”

Fulton County Democrats and Republicans have been at odds over the districts for months. The seven-member commission currently consists of five district commissioners and two commissioners elected countywide, and Democrats enjoy a 5-2 majority.

Under a plan approved by the Republican-dominated General Assembly, one of the countywide seats would be eliminated in favor of a new north Fulton district. The new seat likely would be safely Republican.

Supporters say the new districts will give north Fulton residents a greater say in county affairs. Opponents say the redistricting plan is a deliberate attempt to undermine the voting rights of black residents.

Under the 1965 Voting Rights Act, Georgia and other states with a history of discrimination were required to seek federal approval before implementing any election changes. The new Fulton districts were awaiting Justice Department approval when the Supreme Court struck down a key part of the Voting Rights Act, effectively ending federal review for election changes.

Such changes still can be challenged in federal court, and Fulton officials have been considering such action for months. Now they’ve asked the Justice Department to take on the challenge for them.

Laughlin McDonald, director emeritus of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Voting Rights Project, said the Justice Department has filed such lawsuits in the past. But he said the department doesn’t file many.

In a recent letter to the Justice Department, the ACLU claims the redistricting plan is illegal because it reduces the number of commission seats to which black voters could elect their preferred candidate. It says the plan also packs minority voters into certain districts and unnecessarily places two incumbent black Democrats — Bill Edwards and Emma Darnell — in the same district.

“Although the Supreme Court’s decision this week was a blow to us, we do feel there is a reasonable option to pursue legal action against the redrawn (commission) maps,” Eaves said Friday.

Lindsey said the redistricting plan the General Assembly approved was inspired by a 2007 bipartisan legislative committee.

A spokeswoman for Holder’s office did not respond to requests for comment on Eaves’ letter Friday.

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Staff writer Daniel Malloy contributed to this article.