By Associated Press - Monday, August 24, 2015

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - A three-judge panel on Tuesday will hear arguments over whether Alabama’s legislative districts were racially gerrymandered.

The arguments are the latest stop in a twisting three-year legal battle over the districts. A divided U.S Supreme Court in March said the lower court must take another look at whether the Republican-led Alabama Legislature relied too heavily on race in drawing the lines.

The justices, in sending the case back for additional review, said the lower court should have looked at claims of racial gerrymandering on a district-by-district level - and not just statewide.

The Legislative Black Caucus had challenged the lines, saying Republicans restricted minority voting power by “stacking and packing” black voters into designated minority districts, limiting their ability to influence elections elsewhere. The attorney general’s office in court filings called the challenge a “long-shot” attempt to alter the partisan balance of the Legislature.

The three-judge panel said they will be looking to see if the minority districts are the product of an unconstitutional racial gerrymander.

“It is going to be hard for the state to show that any of them are constitutional,” said James Blacksher, a lawyer representing the Black Caucus.

In the hearing, plaintiffs are expected to focus heavily on how the plan split voting precincts and counties, with black voters being shifted to a district with a black incumbent and white voters going to a district with a white representation. They have asked the panel to toss out the map and order new districts and new elections.

State lawyers have said they expect the plan to be upheld.

“The state has strongly defended the constitutionality of its 2012 redistricting plan and will continue to do so in court this week,” said Mike Lewis, a spokesman for Attorney General Luther Strange.

The Alabama attorney general’s office in a court filing said the “plaintiffs are challenging 36 districts in a long-shot bid to upset the Legislature’s partisan balance.” They said lawmakers had race-neutral reasons for drawing the lines as they did, including preserving the core of districts.

Republicans said they complied with the Voting Rights Act by maintaining the number of African-American legislators in the Alabama Legislature. They said voters were shifted in order to correct wide population variances that had grown between districts.

The judges have given an hour to each side to make their arguments Tuesday.

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