Republicans in Georgia violated a landmark civil rights law in drawing voting maps that diluted the power of Black voters, a federal judge in Atlanta ruled on Thursday, ordering that new maps must be drawn in time for the 2024 elections.
Judge Steve C. Jones of the Northern District of Georgia demanded that the state’s legislature move swiftly to sketch out congressional and General Assembly districts that provide an equitable level of representation for Black residents, who make up more than a third of the state’s population.
In the ruling, Judge Jones wrote that the court “will not allow another election cycle on redistricting plans” that had been found to be unlawful.
Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, responded on Thursday by calling a special session of the Georgia General Assembly that will begin on Nov. 29, giving lawmakers 10 days to meet a Dec. 8 deadline set by Judge Jones.
The timeline, Judge Jones wrote, ensures that “if an acceptable remedy is not produced, there will be time for the court to fashion one.”
Georgia is one of several Southern states where Republicans are defending congressional maps that federal judges have said appear to discriminate against Black voters. Republican officials assailed the ruling; Josh McKoon, the state party chairman, described it in a statement as a “naked power grab.”
“It is simply outrageous that one far-left federal judge is invalidating the will of the elected representatives of the people of Georgia,” he said, “who drew fair maps in conformity with longstanding legal principles.”
The challenges to these maps were invigorated by a Supreme Court ruling in June that found that race could play a role in redistricting — a surprise decision that upheld the key remaining tenet of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a central legislative achievement of the civil rights movement that has otherwise been largely gutted by the court’s conservative majority in recent years.
As part of the regular redistricting process that happens each decade after the census, Georgia Republicans had sought to water down Democratic influence by separating key blocs of voters into different districts.
Two predominantly Black suburbs, for example, were moved out of a district represented by Representative David Scott, a Black Democrat, and into that of the hard-line Republican Marjorie Taylor Greene.
But in doing so, Judge Jones found that Georgia had violated the Voting Rights Act by undercutting the power of Black voters in the state’s congressional map and its division of statehouse districts.
“Georgia has made great strides since 1965 towards equality in voting,” Judge Jones wrote. “However, the evidence before this court shows that Georgia has not reached the point where the political process has equal openness and equal opportunity for everyone.”
The redistricting plans came as Democrats had gained new ground in Georgia, which had once been reliably Republican. Although Republicans have maintained a tight grip on state government, voters in 2020 elected a Democrat for president for the first time since 1992, and in 2021 sent two Democrats to the Senate, ousting Republican incumbents.
Black voters were a driving force in that transformation, making up the highest share of growth in the Georgia electorate, which increased by 1.9 million voters between 2000 and 2019, a Pew Research Center analysis found.
In the legal challenges to the maps, critics argued that the size of the Black electorate in the state warranted at least one additional majority-Black district in Congress, as well as additional majority-Black districts in the State House of Representatives.
Plaintiffs in the challenges include Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, the nation’s oldest Black fraternity, which has thousands of members in Georgia, and the African Methodist Episcopal Church, one of the oldest Protestant denominations founded by Black people, with hundreds of congregations in Georgia.
“It is unfortunate that, decades after the Civil Rights Movement, we still need to defend and promote the right for the African American community to vote,” Bishop Reginald T. Jackson, the presiding prelate for Georgia, said in a statement on Thursday.
Judge Jones, who was appointed to the federal bench in 2011 by President Barack Obama, had allowed the challenged maps to go into effect in 2022, calling it a “difficult decision” that “the court did not make lightly.” That decision was one of several that found it was too close to that year’s elections to implement new maps.
Republicans had argued that there was ample evidence to show that Black voters retained an equal influence in the state, pointing to the success of Senator Raphael Warnock, a Democrat and the state’s first Black U.S. senator, and Representative Lucy McBath, a Democrat who flipped a Republican-held seat, among others. (When Ms. McBath saw her district redrawn to overwhelmingly favor Republicans, she successfully challenged another Democratic representative, Carolyn Bourdeaux, in a different suburban Atlanta seat.)
But the Supreme Court’s unexpected decision to uphold Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, when it agreed that Alabama had illegally diluted the power of its Black voters, has also had implications for Georgia.
With control of the House hinging on a narrow Republican majority, it is possible that redrawing just a few districts in the South could flip control of the chamber. The court also said that the legislature needed to redraw its state map.
The decision in Georgia could be appealed. Republicans in other states have sought to draw out litigation and avoid new maps that are less politically favorable to their incumbents.