Wednesday, March 10, 1999

Black voters go to court over judges


At-large system challenged as discriminatory

BY BEN L. KAUFMAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Black voters were to ask federal appellate judges today to ban the at-large system of elections for Ohio urban county courts.

        They say only an alternative that assures the success of black candidates will vindicate their rights.

        In Hamilton County, their class-action targets the Ohio 1st District Court of Appeals and common pleas court. Elsewhere, municipal courts are included.

        Their suit and appeal say that white majorities overwhelm African-American choices and violate the Voting Rights Act.

        It's an argument that failed when U.S. District Judge George Smith ruled against them Oct. 30, 1997.

        Today, they were scheduled to ask the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit in Cincinnati to overturn his judgment and initiate revamping of judicial elections.

        Responding will be lawyers for the state, arguing again that the paucity of black judges does not prove countywide ballots deny blacks an equal opportunity to elect their choices.

        The suit was initiated in 1994 by Cincinnati Democrat and former state Rep. William Mallory Sr. and nine other black voters.

        Their evidence includes the Ohio 1st District Court of Appeals (no African-Americans; six whites) and Hamilton County Common Pleas Court (one African-Americans; 19 whites).

        As further evidence of illegal dilution of black votes in 80 percent white Hamilton Coun ty, they cite one-on-one contests when African-Americans and whites seek the same judgeship. They say African-Americans lose even when black voters overwhelmingly support a black candidate.

        Similar situations exist in other urban Ohio counties, briefs filed in today's appeal say.

        Other urban Ohio counties suffer similar problems in their municipal courts, according to the complaint.

        However, in Hamilton County, that was resolved after an earlier suit brought by Mr. Mallory and other black voters.

        It replaced countywide voting with seven electoral districts, including two with enough black voters to assure the election of African-Americans to the municipal court.

        Attorneys for the state say Judge Smith correctly concluded countywide elections did not prevent African-Americans from electing judges of their choice.

        Race is “one of the least significant” factors in judicial elections, the state said, and party affiliation, experience, name recognition and endorsements are more important.

        When they are supported by the majority political party, “black judicial candidates in Ohio can, and routinely, do, win,” state lawyers said.

        Further, there is no analogy between judicial and legislative races, where dramatic racial imbalance may require redrawing district lines, state lawyers say.

        “Judges are not "representatives' in the sense that they will represent the will of the electors and should not cater to a particular "constituency.'”

       



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