- Associated Press - Friday, January 20, 2017

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - Federal judges struck down a dozen Alabama legislative districts on Friday, saying Republicans relied too heavily on race when drawing the lines.

The decision in the long-running case comes after the U.S. Supreme Court in 2015 ordered a three-judge panel to review the plan for a second time, and means lawmakers will have to draw new districts before the 2018 elections.

The Legislative Black Caucus and the Alabama Democratic Conference had challenged 36 districts in the GOP-drawn map, arguing African-American voters were “stacked and packed” into designated minority districts. The judges upheld 24 districts but ruled that 12 were unconstitutionally gerrymandered on the lines of race, and blocked the Alabama Legislature from using them in future elections.

“It is a victory for the Legislative Black Caucus. We fought it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court,” said Rep. John Knight, D-Montgomery. Knight, who is chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus, said the shift of large number of black voters into the minority districts limited African-Americans from having political influence anywhere outside those few segregated districts.

Jim Blacksher, an attorney for the black caucus, said he expected the ripple effect was going to require virtually the whole state to be withdrawn.

Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange said his office will determine the next steps in conjunction with the governor and the Alabama Legislature.

“While we are still reviewing the 627-page ruling, we are pleased that the court upheld the constitutionality of two-thirds of the state legislative districts under challenge,” Strange said.

Republicans won their first legislative majority in 2010 and had control over redistricting, which takes place every 10 years when new Census figures are available.

Republican lawmakers argued previous plans drawn by Democrats had allowed too wide a variance among district populations, and they adjusted lines so districts contained roughly the same number of people without reducing the number of majority-black districts. The new plan allowed only a 2 percent population difference between districts, a much lower variance than previous plans.

The districts were first used in the 2014 elections.

The U.S. Supreme Court in 2015 said a lower court did not properly consider complaints that state officials illegally packed black voters into too few voting districts.

Justices said the lower court should have looked at claims of racial gerrymandering on a district-by-district level, not just statewide. The Supreme Court also said Alabama took a position of prioritizing mechanical racial targets when drawing districts.

In writing the opinion for the three-judge panel, Circuit Judge Bill Pryor, a former Alabama attorney general, said the Alabama Legislature had faced a “difficult task” in 2012.

“The legislature had to draw districts of roughly equal population that were conscious enough of race to comply with the Voting Rights Act, but not so conscious of race that they violated the Fourteenth Amendment,” he wrote.

U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson, one of the judges on the panel, in a separate opinion said he thought another 12 legislative districts were unconstitutional.

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