Finally, Sumter County Has Legal School Districts

January 2020

W. Louis Sands, Senior U. S. District Judge of the United States District Court for the Middle District of Georgia..

Atty. Bryan Sells, ACLU LeadI Attorney in the Sumter School Board case.

Atty. Fred McBride , ACLU Research Expert.

Atty. Laughlin McDonald, ACLU Voting Rights Special Counsel and Director, Emeritus

Staff Reports

On Monday, January 13, 2020, a Public Hearing was held in the Federal Courthouse in Albany, Georgia, presided by the Honorable Judge Louis Sands. The Hearing is the result of the lawsuit between Mathis Kearse Wright and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and the Sumter County Election Board and Registrations. Wright was victorious in a long struggle for fair and constitutional school districts. The Sumter County Board of Commissioners voted to pay attorneys to fight Wright to maintain illegal school districts.

State Republican Representative Michael Cheokas along with Albany Democrat State Senator Freddie Powell-Sims obtained a special Bill 836 from the GA Legislature that changed the Sumter County School districts from a Black majority to a White majority. When the case went to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, the ruling was to have seven single-member districts instead of five districts
with two At-Large seats.

Judge Sands gave an opening summary of the case history at the hearing and then allowed for opening statements from the Plaintiffs (Wright and the ACLU) and the Defendants (Sumter County Commissioners’ lawyers). Sands said, “There are five questions he needed both sides to address:

First, whether any party wishes to comment further on the remedial options before the Court?

The Plaintiffs reiterated that map 3 was their preferred choice. Map 3 consists of 4 of 7 member districts which give African Americans equal opportunity to select candidates of their choice.

The Defendants did not object but left themselves and opening to appeal again to the 11th Circuit after map 3 remedy is adopted.

Second, how much time is needed to implement a remedy?

The Plaintiffs deferred this question to the Defendants. The Defendants had no preferred time but noted that if May 2020 is the date ordered by the Court it would be too soon. It would have to be in the next couple of
weeks but maybe November, 2020 will simplify the process.

Third, what are the parties’ opinions on scheduling the elections in May versus November?

Both parties restated their answers in the second question. Fourth, are there any other legal or logistical concerns regarding the remedy? Neither party had any other concerns. Fifth, is there anything else we want to say? Both parties said no.

Several school board members and local citizens were permitted to speak and state their opinions on the proposed school district changes. One person stated the seven single-member districts created confusion with voters understanding which district they were in and the school districts should look the same as the county commissioners five single members.

However, the Plaintiffs strongly retorted by recommending changing the county commissioner’s districts need to match the new school board remedy.

Another speaker suggested (a supporter of the at-large seats). ” The election won by Cortisa Barthell for County Clerk, a Black female, who won a countywide election. So, the at-large seats should remain because of a Black candidate could win a countywide election.”

The rebuttal to that statement by Plaintiffs was to remind the speaker that Ms. Barthell’s election was non-partisan, and only Democrats voted in that election.

In December 2018, Judge Sands ruled that the Cheokas’ 5-2 plan was in violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1964, and ordered that a new plan of seven single-member districts be implemented. A final order is forthcoming within one month.