By EMILY WAGSTER PETTUS
JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - A federal judge ruled Wednesday that one of Mississippi's 52 state Senate districts violates the Voting Rights Act because it does not give African-American voters an "equal opportunity" to elect a candidate of their choice.
U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves ruled in a lawsuit that challenges the composition of Senate District 22.
The district stretches through parts of six counties in the Delta down into the Jackson suburbs of Madison County. It has a 51 percent black voting-age population and a white senator, Republican Buck Clarke of Hollandale.
The lawsuit was filed in July by three black people. One of them lost in 2015 to Clarke, who took office in 2004.
Clarke is not seeking re-election to the Senate this year. Instead, he is running for state treasurer.
Reeves is giving lawmakers a chance to redraw District 22 and possibly other Senate districts. Reeves also said in his order Wednesday that legislators could choose to extend the qualifying deadline for candidates in any districts that would be redrawn.
March 1 is candidates' qualifying deadline for statewide, regional, legislative and county offices in Mississippi.
Rob McDuff, an attorney who represented plaintiffs on behalf of the Mississippi Center for Justice, told Reeves in court last week that District 22 has a history of racially polarized voting, which creates hurdles for any black candidate to win in the district
Kristen Clarke is president and executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, one of the groups representing plaintiffs. She praised Reeves' decision.
"The people of Mississippi and every American deserve an equal opportunity to participate in a fair democratic process," Clarke said in a statement Wednesday. "This important victory will finally secure a fair state Senate map and provide long overdue relief to African-Americans in the state."
Mike Wallace is an attorney representing Republican Gov. Phil Bryant and Republican Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, who are two of the three state election commissioners named as defendants. Wallace told Reeves last week that although Mississippi had barriers in the past to black voter registration and participation, plaintiffs failed to show that African-Americans face hurdles now in District 22.
"There isn't anything impeding them from exercising the right to vote," Wallace said.
Plaintiffs' attorneys told Reeves that District 22 could be redrawn with minimal disruption to Senate districts near it.
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