In a bid to create a better chance for black residents of rural areas to get elected to local office, a team of civil rights and private lawyers has filed what one prominent civil rights organization calls the first major voting rights lawsuit of the year.
Attorneys from the Washington-based Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and two private law firms filed the suit Monday in federal court in North Carolina. The suit alleges that the black residents who account for about a third of the population in Jones County, N.C., are prevented from electing candidates who represent their needs because the county elects commissioners at large rather than by district. The complaint alleges the at-large system prevents black residents from electing black candidates from their communities, and says the at-large system dilutes black voting power.
The Lawyers' Committee targeted Jones County because the issues there are emblematic of the challenges faced by black residents in rural areas across the country, Kristen Clarke, president and CEO of the Washington-based non-profit, told USA TODAY. The organization seeks to move Jones County from an at-large electoral scheme to a system of single-member districts, Clarke said.
Lawyers from private law firms Patterson Harkavy in Chapel Hill, N.C., and Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton in New York are part of the team that filed the suit in New Bern, N.C. The action names the Board of Commissioners, the county Board of Elections and other parties.
The county declined comment because the case is in litigation.
"We have been provided with the civil suit which was filed today in federal court," Jones County election director Jennifer King said in an e-mail Monday. "Because this involves ongoing federal litigation, we are not in a position to comment on this suit beyond that," she said.
Frank Emory, chairman of the Jones County Board of Commissioners and a defendant in the suit, could not be reached by telephone and did not respond to an e-mail requesting the commission’s side of the story. Commissioner Zack Koonce and Jones County attorney Jimmie Hicks also did not respond to e-mails sent on Friday.
A black person has not served on the Jones County Board of Commissioners since 1998, and the white commissioners have repeatedly made decisions that benefit white residents and hurt black residents, plaintiff Lindora Toudle told USA TODAY. Toudle complains the board has hired trash collection and water department contractors who have displaced black residents from longtime positions, has failed to respond to complaints of law enforcement mistreating black residents.
There was no straw that broke the camel’s back, no incident that exhausted residents’ patience that led Toudle and two other plaintiffs to be part of the lawsuit, just a feeling that it was time to turn to the courts, Toudle said.
“We decided, ‘Hey, we haven’t tried this,’ “ said Toudle, 63, a regional health services coordinator who lives in Trenton, N.C. “The only way we can go is up,” she said.
The 473-square-mile county of a little more than 10,000 residents has a history of racial unease.
According to the University of North Carolina Center for Civil Rights, the geographical lines of county seat Trenton were drawn to exclude black neighborhoods. A town ordinance passed in 1949 and not repealed until the 1970s barred “persons of color and/or persons of undesirable character and reputation” from owning land in Trenton.
As recently as 1999, former Trenton Mayor Joffree Leggett was quoted by the Free Press of Kinston, N.C., as saying, “I could put three (black) people in a store. Within a few years, they’d be stealing from each other and they’d be out of business. They’re not leaders.” Leggett resigned after criticism and backlash from the public.
The county’s history of all-white commissions goes back almost two decades and 1994 was the last time a black candidate was elected to one of the four-year posts on the five-member Board of Commissions, the complaint notes.
In a majority white county with at-large elections, commissioners don't need black votes to get re-elected, Toudle said.
“They have no reason to listen to us because they know that they’re going to get back in office,” Toudle said. “A lot of times, we’re just left hanging. Nothing changes.”
For instance, commissioners have secured contractors for trash collection and for water department jobs, displacing black residents from long-time positions, Toudle said.
The minutes from a 2014 Board of Commissioners meeting included testimony from a black resident who complained that she witnessed a black person being kicked by county sheriff’s deputies while he was being arrested. The minutes noted that commissioners responded there was nothing they could do.
The recent confirmation of U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has raised the concerns of the civil rights community, who cite the Sessions' description of the Voting Rights Act an “intrusive” piece of legislation. But the lawyers suing Jones County point out that no matter the backing they receive from the Justice Department, this case and others like it will be up to the courts to decide.
“I think that with the new administration, we won’t see a Department of Justice that is as active in defending the right to vote for people of color, but what we do see and what we can see is organizations like the Lawyers’ Committee and firms with strong pro bono programs are still ready to defend the right to vote across the board,” Clarke said. “At the end of the day, the Voting Rights Act says what it says.”
The Department of Justice declined to comment Monday.