Lawsuit says Tennessee’s US House and state Senate maps discriminate against communities of color

Aug 9, 2023, 1:43 PM | Updated: 2:08 pm

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee is facing its first court challenge over a congressional redistricting map that carved up Democratic-leaning Nashville to help Republicans flip a seat in last year’s elections, a move that the plaintiffs say has unconstitutionally diluted the power of Black voters and other communities of color.

The lawsuit filed Wednesday in federal court in Nashville says the U.S. House maps and those for the state Senate amount to unconstitutional racial gerrymandering under the 14th and 15th amendments. The plaintiffs include the Tennessee State Conference of the NAACP, the African American Clergy Collective of Tennessee, the Equity Alliance, the League of Women Voters of Tennessee and several Tennessee voters, including former state Sen. Brenda Gilmore.

By splintering Nashville into three Republican-majority districts that stretch into rural counties, Tennessee’s congressional maps sparked significant pushback and threats of litigation from Democrats after Republicans drew them up early last year.

With the new lines in play, former Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper of Nashville declined to seek reelection, saying he couldn’t win any of the three new seats drawn to split the city during the once-a-decade redistricting process. The Republican advantage held true, as Rep. John Rose won reelection by about 33 percentage points, Rep. Mark Green won another term by 22 points, and Rep. Andy Ogles won his first term by 13 points in the district vacated by Cooper.

The strategy shifted Tennessee to eight Republicans in the U.S. House, with just one Democrat left in Memphis Rep. Steve Cohen.

“The Tennessee Legislature split Nashville into three districts and splintered my neighborhoods,” said Gilmore, a former Democratic state senator who is Black. “And most harmful of all, the redistricting plan attacked African American voters, both diluting our voices, our vote and people who look like me, and other people of color, from electing candidates of our choice.”

Additionally, the lawsuit challenges state Senate District 31 in majority-Black Shelby County, including part of Memphis. It’s represented by Republican Sen. Brent Taylor.

The new lawsuit in Tennessee comes as the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to take up a redistricting challenge over South Carolina’s congressional lines similarly on 14th and 15th amendment claims. In that case, a panel of federal judges previously ruled that a congressional district there was intentionally redrawn to split Black neighborhoods to dilute their voting power.

“The South Carolina case is absolutely relevant to our case because the claims in this case and that case are identical. They’re very similar,” said Pooja Chaudhuri, an attorney with The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, one of the legal groups that helped bring the lawsuit.

Mitchell Brown of the Lawyers’ Committee said the choice not to file the Tennessee lawsuit earlier helped in part because the attorneys were able to see the results of 2022 elections, during which Black and brown voters’ candidates of choice lost by big margins. That includes Odessa Kelly, a Black Democrat defeated by Rep. Green in one congressional race.

Republican legislative leaders in Tennessee have said population shifts elsewhere in the growing state and significant growth in and around Nashville justified dividing the city up. They have contended that they met the legal requirements needed to withstand any lawsuits.

The lawsuit also accuses Republican lawmakers of passing the maps through a “opaque, inadequate, and rushed process designed to forestall public scrutiny, minimize backlash, and stifle any meaningful debate or dissent.”

Meanwhile, Tennessee’s state legislative maps are still facing another lawsuit on state constitutional grounds. A ruling could be handed down sometime soon.

Tennessee’s previous congressional map before the 2022 redistricting process kept Nashville together in one seat, extending into two additional counties and totaling about a 24% Black population. That means that Nashville likely doesn’t have enough minority voters to make up a district’s majority — a key number to hit for certain protections under the Voting Rights Act. However, the lawsuit instead focuses on other rights under the U.S. Constitution.

In 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that partisan gerrymandering of congressional and legislative districts is none of its business, limiting those claims to be decided in state courts under their own constitutions and laws.

Republicans in South Carolina’s case, in part, said they were driven by political interests, not race, in drawing their maps.

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Lawsuit says Tennessee’s US House and state Senate maps discriminate against communities of color