A federal lawsuit arguing that Gwinnett County’s commission and school board districts dilute the influence of minority voters cleared a significant hurdle last week.
But United States District Judge Amy Totenberg made it clear that the plaintiffs still have a long road ahead of them.
Totenberg issued an order Friday stating that federal law does not prohibit the plaintiffs behind the suit — led by the Washington, D.C., based Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law — from using a “coalition” of multiple minority groups to make their case. Such a coalition has been a large part of Gwinnett County’s arguments against the suit.
Motions to dismiss filed on behalf of Gwinnett’s Board of Commissioners and Board of Education had argued, in part, that the federal Voting Rights Act is meant to protect the voting interests of large groups of a single minority — not a combination of blacks, Latinos and Asians like the one relied on in the lawsuit.
“We’re very pleased with the decision of the court recognizing that which the 11th Circuit has also recognized, that there is an actionable claim for a coalition of minority voters to prove that they have been denied, as a group, an equal opportunity to participate in the political process,” Ezra Rosenberg, co-director of the Voting Rights Project of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Monday.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Atlanta in August, makes its claims on behalf of several individuals, as well as the Georgia State Conference of the NAACP and the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials. It proposes re-drawing Gwinnett’s districts to create create two minority commission districts and add a second minority school board district.
Gwinnett is a majority-minority county, meaning non-white residents outnumber white ones. But neither the Board of Commissioners nor the school board have ever had a non-white member.
That fact has drawn extra scrutiny in recent months, as the aftermath of Gwinnett County Commissioner Tommy Hunter calling civil rights leader and U.S. Rep. John Lewis a “racist pig” continues to unfold. In a move unrelated to the pending lawsuit, state Rep. Pedro Marin, D-Duluth, has also filed bills that would re-draw Gwinnett’s commission and school board districts.
To be clear, Totenberg’s decision that a minority coalition may be used in the Gwinnett lawsuit is not a ruling on the merits of the case. Moving forward, the judge wrote, the plaintiffs must prove that their coalition has “political cohesiveness” — that Gwinnett’s black, Latino and Asian voters tend to vote the same way.
In her order, Totenberg pointed out that the plaintiffs “may face significant proof issues” in their attempts to show such a cohesiveness.
Gwinnett County has until May 26 to file a new response to the lawsuit. The county, which does not typically comment on pending litigation, declined to comment Monday.
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