Lawyers’ Committee Announces Settlement of Major Voting Rights Lawsuit in North Carolina

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Lawsuit Challenged Discriminatory Voting System That Denied African-American Voters a Fair Opportunity to Elect Candidates of Choice in Jones County for More than Two Decades

 

The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (Lawyers’ Committee), with the law firms of Cleary Gottlieb Steen and Hamilton LLP (Cleary Gottlieb), and Patterson Harkavy LLP announced a settlement the federal voting rights lawsuit filed on behalf of African American voters in Jones County, North Carolina. Filed in February, the lawsuit alleged that the method of electing the County Board of Commissioners-the five-member body that makes critical and wide-ranging decisions impacting Jones County residents-diluted the voting strength of African-American voters, in violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. This case was the first case filed under the Voting Rights Act in the nation in 2017.

“This important victory ensures that African-American voters in Jones County will have an opportunity elect representatives of their choice,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “For over 20 years, the Board of Commissioners could willfully ignore the needs or concerns of nearly a third of the Jones County community. The Voting Rights Act continues to be a powerful tool to safeguard the rights of African-American voters in Jones County and beyond”

The District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina approved the consent judgment and decree, which will replace the at-large method used to elect the Board with a system of single-member districts.

Due to racially polarized voting in Jones County, no African-American candidate has been elected to the Jones County Board of Commissioners since 1994. White voters consistently vote as a bloc to defeat candidates supported by the Black community. The lawsuit alleged that the lack of African-American representation resulted in “systemic neglect” of the needs and concerns of African Americans in the county.

Under the terms of the settlement agreement, Jones County will move to a single-member district system that will provide African American voters a fair opportunity to elect candidates of their choice.  In addition, the county will add two seats to the Board of Commissioners – increasing the number of representatives from five to seven members. Two of the seven members will be elected from districts in which African Americans will comprise a majority.

“This case illustrates the importance of representation,” said Jonathan Blackman, Partner at Cleary Gottlieb. “We are pleased to have been able to help in bringing about a result that gives African-American citizens of Jones County an equal opportunity to elect candidates of their choice for their County government. Going forward, all citizens of the County will benefit from this change.”

“We are glad that the system for electing Jones County commissioners is now fair for all citizens, black and white,” said Burton Craige, a Raleigh lawyer with the civil rights firm Patterson Harkavy, LLP.

This case is part of the Lawyers’ Committee’s ongoing efforts to combat voting discrimination and voter suppression across the country.  In the past year and a half, the Lawyer’s Committee has filed close to 18 voting rights lawsuits across the country – more than the U.S. Department of Justice and virtually any other organization.  This suit marks resolution of the very first Voting Rights Act case filed in 2017.