Professor says Congressional map would withstand civil rights challenge, lawmakers debate racial makeup

by Steve Brawner ([email protected]) 784 views 

Some opponents of bills that would divide Pulaski County into three congressional districts say they could lead to a civil rights lawsuit, while a law school professor says the Legislature is on firm ground because race was not a motivating factor.

Senate Bill 743 by Sen. Jane English, R-North Little Rock, and House Bill 1982 by Rep. Nelda Speaks, R-Mountain Home, were working their ways through both chambers Wednesday (Oct. 6) and appeared headed to final passage.

Lawmakers are required to redraw congressional lines every 10 years to account for population changes and ensure each of the state’s four congressional districts are roughly the same size. After this census, that number would be about 750,000 people each.

The bills carve out three precincts in eastern Pulaski County from the 2nd District and place them in the 1st, and move 11 precincts in southeastern Pulaski to the 4th. One precinct in North Little Rock was being moved to the 1st while two precincts in Little Rock were being moved to the 4th. These are primarily African-American areas that would be moving away from the 2nd. In recent years, the 2nd has been the one where Democrats have been most competitive.

Robert Steinbuch, a law professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock William H. Bowen School of Law, said the maps would not make the state vulnerable to a civil rights lawsuit because they do not appear to be based on race. Because the maps pass that test and fulfill the “one person, one vote” requirement of having substantially equal congressional districts, they should be OK.

“Anything potentially has civil rights issues,” he said. “I guess if what you’re really asking me is, from what I’ve heard so far, do I see there’s a reasonable question of civil rights issues? The answer is no.”

Steinbuch said he has a substantive background in litigation, business law and affirmative action.

Sen. Clarke Tucker, D-Little Rock, an attorney who represents Little Rock in Pulaski County, disagrees. Speaking to the Senate that morning, Tucker said, “I have no idea if litigation’s going to be filed. My guess is that it will. And the fact that we’re splitting Pulaski County three ways is going to be Exhibit 1. It was a headline in today’s newspaper, and it’s going to be a headline in court.”

Tucker said Cleburne County appeared as if it were being moved from the 1st to the 2nd to make room for that section of Pulaski County to be moved into the 1st. Cleburne County has a population of 24,711 that is 96.5% white, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

He said the parts of Pulaski County moving to the 1st District are 34% white, 58% African-American, and 4% Hispanic. The parts going to the 4th are 27% white, 49% African-American, and 27% Hispanic. The parts remaining in the 2nd are 52% white, 34% African-American, and 7% Hispanic. Tucker noted that every other state that was a member of the Confederacy has drawn majority-minority districts, and all have elected African-American representatives to Congress. Arkansas has done neither.

“Not only are we not doing that, we are slicing and dicing the black and brown population in Pulaski County in three different congressional districts,” he said.

Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Conway, the chair of the State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee, said in the Senate chamber that he did not look at any numbers related to the districts’ racial makeups.

“Specifically with staff, with leadership, we have done our very best to not have any discussion (about race) so we can focus on parameters that we’re supposed to look at in redistricting,” he said.

He said he did ask the Bureau of Legislative Research that day to compile numbers comparing the map being considered with the one drawn after the 2010 census by a majority Democratic Legislature. In that 2011 map, minorities compose 18% of the population in the 1st District, 21.4% in the 2nd, 2.6% in the 3rd, and 19.4% in the 4th, he said. In the maps being considered now, minorities compose 17.2% in the 1st, 20.1% in the 2nd, 2.8% in the 3rd, and 19.4% in the 4th.

Speaking after remarks made by Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, Rapert said, “There’s been no effort whatsoever, Senator (to draw lines based on racial considerations). I would object if there were.” Rapert said the state’s most populous county could benefit from having three congressmen considering its interests rather than one.

Elliott noted that 11 bills filed by legislators during this process didn’t split counties. She said legislators could choose to consider race as they draw the maps.

“We’re not supposed to pack these districts, and we’re not supposed to crack these districts when it comes to minority voters,” she said. “This map does absolutely what it is not supposed to do.”

Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock, said her state Senate district is being “punished” for being majority African-American and majority Democratic.

“I would ask that you not vote for a map that’s prejudiced, hyper-partisan and petty,” she said.

During his weekly press briefing, Gov. Asa Hutchinson issued a caution about how a county is divided.

“What’s important is not whether or not you divide Pulaski County, but how you divide Pulaski County if you make that decision to do so. I would urge them to keep in mind that you do not want to dilute minority representation or influence in Congressional races. And that is an important factor, I believe, that should be considered,” he said.

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