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The U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division has challenged Georgia’s new legislative maps, suggesting it may discriminate against African-Americans. Under the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the state is required to submit its new maps for review by either the DOJ or a three-judge panel of District Court judges in Washington. The state had hoped to avoid review by a Republican DOJ when it filed suit last month, asking the judicial panel to review the often oddly shaped maps and bypass the DOJ. But the DOJ has served notice it doesn’t intend to be left out of the review process. The DOJ rejected the state’s reassurances that its new legislative district maps had “neither the purpose or effect of discriminating on the basis of race or color.” Georgia “has not met its burden of proving” that the new maps did not abridge or deny African-Americans the right to vote, the DOJ’s answer states. State of Georgia v. Ashcroft, No. 1:01-cv-02111 (D.C. Oct. 10, 2001). Rather than wait for review by the Department of Justice, Thurbert E. Baker, the attorney general of Georgia, sued the DOJ in October “to provide … Georgia with the most expeditious method of preclearing those [redistricting] statutes.” But DOJ attorneys also acknowledged in their response that, at this point, they have insufficient information to determine whether Georgia’s legislative maps were redrawn either with a racially regressive intent or led “to a regression in the position of racial minorities,” especially African-American voting strength. Baker spokesman Russell D. Willard on Thursday characterized the DOJ response as “generally denying our allegations in the complaint.” He says DOJ attorneys “have intimated that it is not their intention to object to every district” in each of the three new legislative district maps. Georgia has alleged that its new maps do not violate federal voting laws and are not built on racial bias. Willard says the state already has submitted hundreds of pages of data for review by DOJ attorneys. “I know what we submitted can be measured in bankers boxes and not in envelopes,” he says. Judge Emmet G. Sullivan of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ordered Georgia and DOJ attorneys to appear Dec. 17 before a three-judge panel in Washington. “This is the first opportunity that the state of Georgia will have to appear before the three-judge panel where we will attempt to set a schedule for trial and to narrow the issues that will be before the court,” Willard says. The other two judges on the panel are Senior Judge Louis F. Oberdorfer of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia and Judge Harry T. Edwards of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. Federal law requires that the judicial review panel be comprised of one judge from that appeals court and two from that district court. Baker was at a conference of state attorneys general in California and was not available to comment. Georgia is anxious to expedite the process of drawing final maps for the state House and Senate, as well as congressional districts. “It is of the utmost public importance that this Court act upon [Georgia's] claims at the earliest practicable date, and that an expedited trial be scheduled,” Georgia’s complaint states. Baker hopes to resolve any legal conflicts surrounding the new district maps prior to the week of April 22, 2002, when candidates for the General Assembly and the U.S. House must qualify, according to the suit. Since the special legislative session began last summer, Republicans have complained that the Democrats, led by Georgia Gov. Roy E. Barnes, excluded them from the redistricting process, drew gerrymandered district lines that favored Democrats, and shifted African-American voters to new districts in hopes of enhancing the election prospects of white Democrats. Democrats concede they drew the map to favor their party’s candidates. But they say the configuration doesn’t harm the interests of minorities. Federal law permits political gerrymandering; it does not permit gerrymandering that dilutes minority voting strength. Georgia Republican Party Chairman Ralph Reed promised earlier this year that the GOP would challenge the new maps in court. But Baker sued first, sidestepping a normal review by the Republican Justice Department. In announcing the October filing, Baker said, “We have elected to file suit in the United States District Court because this will provide the people of Georgia with the most expeditious method of preclearing those statutes recently passed by their elected representatives.” Baker noted that Georgia’s previous attempts to redraw district lines statewide typically have resulted in litigation after the U.S. Department of Justice reviewed them. “We have elected to proceed directly with judicial review of the plans, as authorized by the Voting Rights Act, in an effort to save valuable time and minimize the cost to Georgia taxpayers,” Willard says. “This will avoid a protracted process that otherwise would involve both an initial administrative review of these statutes and then possible litigation following the conclusion of that administrative review.” Willard says the suit was filed “after consultation with the governor’s office as well as members of the General Assembly. But this was ultimately our decision.”

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