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Local News

New judge takes control of another Georgia political map; Cobb schools now found in violation of voting law

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by Ross Williams, Georgia Recorder

History could be repeating itself yet again in the Georgia Capitol early next year, when lawmakers could be taking another crack at an electoral map after a federal judge said it violated the Voting Rights Act’s protections for Black voters.

Politically attuned readers likely remember that members of the House and Senate just finished up a special session dedicated to redrawing their own electoral maps and one for Congress after federal Judge Steve Jones ruled they did not meet the law’s requirements.

On Thursday, Judge Eleanor Ross ruled that maps for the state’s second-largest school district in suburban Cobb County are likely unconstitutionally racially gerrymandered, and she gave the General Assembly until Jan. 10 to adopt a new map, citing a timeline agreed to by parties to the case. The Legislature is scheduled to convene Jan. 8 for its regular yearly session.

“I am thrilled that the Court has ruled in our favor,” said Hylah Daly, one of the plaintiffs in the case. “As a former Cobb County student, it was important for my voice and the voices of our current and former students to be heard in this case. We are standing against racial inequality so that all students will have fair representation.”

The district, represented by the Freeman, Mathis and Gary law firm, indicated it plans to appeal.

“Anticipating this ruling by Judge Ross, Freeman, Mathis, and Gary have taken every available step, were prepared for her decision, and we do not anticipate this case to be over in the near term,” said district spokeswoman Nan Kiel. “This continues to be a legal matter and we cannot make further comment.”

The lawsuit was originally filed against the county elections board, but the school district asked to join as a defendant. The district then asked Ross to dismiss the case, arguing in part that they were not the right party to sue. Ross removed the school district as a defendant, but also ruled that the plaintiffs could continue to seek new maps. The district has since unsuccessfully tried to rejoin the suit, while the elections board settled with the plaintiffs.

Despite no longer being party to the case, the district has spent $1.3 million defending its maps, according to the Marietta Daily Journal.

Suburbs like Cobb have grown increasingly diverse between the 2010 and 2020 censuses, and many of Cobb’s elected positions have gone from Republican to Democrat as a result, but plaintiffs said the school board map approved in 2021 was drawn to prevent voters of color the possibility of electing the majority of the seven-member board.

According to Ross’ order, then-board chair Randy Scamihorn first met with people from the Cobb-based Taylor English Duma law firm to discuss redistricting in May 2021, including partner Bryan Tyson and former state Rep. Earl Ehrhart.

That December, the board voted 4-3 along racial lines to approve a map created by Taylor.

Electoral maps must be certified by the General Assembly, and Scamihorn sent the map to west Cobb Rep. Ginny Ehrhart, who is married to Earl Ehrhart. According to plaintiffs, Ehrhart led the map through “an unusual legislative path, first sidestepping the customary approvals of Cobb County legislators—the majority of whom are Black or Black-preferred candidates—and then avoiding assignment to the usual committees for county-level redistricting legislation.”

State Rep. David Wilkerson, a Democrat from Cobb County, said meeting the judge’s deadline will require lawmakers to stick to the process.

“We can, before Jan. 10, meet as a local delegation, comply with the judge’s orders and pass and sign off on a map, sign off on legislation as a local delegation,” he said. “Now, it does not take effect of law, but we can provide legislative intent to the judge, acting as a general assembly body, because the delegation is a part of the legislature.”

Wilkerson said he’s hopeful, but he can’t guarantee everyone will play nice, or that the judge will be satisfied with legislative intent rather than a map passed by both chambers.

“I can’t promise what’s going to happen,” he said. “All I know is that the judge gave us clear guidance on what we need to get done. The legislature has clear guidance on how local legislation should happen. Now, it’s up to the body if we want to disregard that, but I think it’s pretty clear what we need to do and how we need to do it. So I can’t speak for what’s going to happen behind closed doors, but I can tell you that the process is laid out for us to provide the judge with legislative intent by the delegation. That’s the way I see it.”

Georgia Recorder is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Georgia Recorder maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor John McCosh for questions: info@georgiarecorder.com. Follow Georgia Recorder on Facebook and Twitter.