LITTLE ROCK — A panel of federal judges on Monday rejected a state senator’s claim that the state’s 2011 legislative redistricting plan was intended to weaken the voting strength of blacks in eastern Arkansas.
The ruling by the three-judge panel upholds the redrawn boundaries of the district now represented by Sen. Jack Crumbly, D-Widener.
Crumbly, who is black, lost to state Rep. Keith Ingram, who is white, in the May Democratic primary for the new District 50 Senate seat. No Republican is running in the November general election.
Crumbly and 23 other residents of his district asked the state Board of Apportionment — comprised of Gov. Mike Beebe, Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, both Democrats, and Republican Secretary State Mark Martin — to redraw the state Senate district lines in a way that preserved a larger percentage of black voters.
The district Crumbly represents was drawn a decade earlier to create a 58 percent majority of voting-age blacks, but the plan approved in 2011 left the new District 50 with only a 53 percent black majority, the plaintiffs said in their lawsuit.
The board approved the new district lines last year in a 2-1 vote, with Martin voting against the plan.
Judge Lavenski Smith, who wrote Monday’s unanimous 28-page ruling, said that "based on the record, we conclude that Gov. Beebe’s and Attorney General McDaniel’s feelings were not the result of racial animus leading to the creation of an unlawful reapportionment but instead reflect political preferences of the majority board."
Smith, however, did say that there is a history of racial discrimination in the electoral process in Arkansas.
"With that history in mind, we stress that our determination that no illegal vote dilution or intentional discrimination occurred does not mean that the plaintiffs did not raise important concerns about the Arkansas redistricting process," he wrote. "Because the board acted within the bounds of the law, those concerns are for the voters of Arkansas, not for the courts of the United States, to address."
Crumbly said Monday he had no plans to appeal the ruling.
"Naturally we were disappointed with the outcome, but the court has spoken so we will abide by the ruling," he said.
Crumbly said he still believes that "a district with a higher black voting population would have provided a more equitable distribution, which is the goal of redistricting."
Matt DeCample, a spokesman for Beebe, said the governor was glad to see the ruling but not surprised by it.
"The governor has said all along that we worked throughout this entire process carefully to avoid discrimination, and we’re glad to see the court agreed," DeCample said.
The judges previously dismissed Martin from a portion of the lawsuit alleging racial discrimination, after Beebe testified in court that Martin’s suggestions on redistricting were discarded. Martin has said he believed the district could and should have been redrawn with a larger percentage of black voters.
Asa Hutchinson, attorney for Martin, said Monday that the secretary of state was pleased that the ruling gave voters certainty about the results of the district’s Senate race but disappointed that the court upheld a redistricting plan that "diluted the African-American vote in that district."
"The three-judge panel does provide its comments on the partisan nature of the Board of Apportionment, and that those are issues the voters have to decide," Hutchinson said.