WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court’s decision this week not to hear a voter-rights case from Worcester County drew quick praise from the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP.
But it did not settle the contentious issue.
“There’s an unanswered question as to who wins,” said Worcester County Attorney Edward Hammond, who represented the Board of County Commissioners in the case.
The highest court’s decision ensures that Worcester County must change the way it elects its local officials. But it leaves open the question as to how.
An appeal on that question is still pending with the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond.
The case revolves around the question of voting rights for blacks. The Worcester County chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and voters had sued the county, alleging they would never be able to elect a county commissioner under a system in which the five commissioners ran countywide.
The county’s black minority makes up only about 21 percent of the population.
U.S. District Judge Joseph Young agreed, ordering the county to change its election system, which he said violated the rights of blacks. His decision was upheld by the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals.
The county commissioners appealed to the Supreme Court.
James Purnell, president of the Worcester County chapter of the NAACP, said the ruling did not surprise him.
“I felt confident that the Supreme Court would not hear this case,” he said.
Debbie Jeon, a lawyer with the ACLU who represented the NAACP and others, similarly welcomed the decision.
“I thought it was exactly what should have happened,” she said. “The county has dragged this case on for years.”
Young’s remedy – still under appeal with the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals – ordered a new election system that all sides agree will be problematic.
He ordered voting by districts in the primaries. County voters would be asked to select one commissioner for each district.
Then, in the general election, voters would be asked to vote cumulatively, or five times for any candidate(s) desired. If a person wanted to vote for the same candidate five times in the general election, County Attorney Hammond said, he would be permitted to do so.
“It’s confusing to the voters in this county to have two remedies,” Purnell said.
He added the NAACP and other plaintiffs had asked Young to modify the remedy but the judge denied their request. They had sought cumulative voting in primaries and general elections, and later asked for the creation of a single, black-majority district.
Hammond said the Worcester County commissioners object to the judge’s remedy and the one proposed by the NAACP.
“The way they (the plaintiffs) want the district set up is to assure the election of a black commissioner,” Hammond said.
Purnell said the goal was not to ensure election of a black commissioner, but “to guarantee that we could elect a person of our own choosing.”
A decision on the remedy from the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals is expected in the next few months.
Purnell said he sees the continued court action as pointless.
“The highest court in the land has made a decision and they’re still saying they want to fight on,” Purnell said. “What do they have left?” -30-