Lawsuit Challenges Gwinnett County’s District Map for Blocking Minority Representation
By Pilar Verdes, Special to the Atlanta Progressive News.
(APN) ATLANTA — On August 08, 2016, the Georgia State Conference of the NAACP, the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials (GALEO), and seven Gwinnett county citizens have filed a federal lawsuit, challenging the district scheme used by the Gwinnett Board of Commissioners and the Gwinnett Board of Education for blocking Black, Latino, and Asian representation.
The Plaintiffs argue that the current district scheme violates Section II of the Voting Rights Act of 1964, and the Complaint seeks declaratory and injunctive relief.
“The at-large seat and districting plan used to elect the Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners and the districting plan used to elect the Gwinnett County Board of Education, deny Gwinnett County’s Black, Latino, and Asian-American residents… an equal opportunity to participate in the political process and elect representatives of their choice,” the Complaint states.
“They therefore violate Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.”
“Gwinnett County is 54 percent minority, but there are zero minority elected officials represented in office for the Gwinnett County Commission or the School Board,” Jerry Gonzalez, Executive Director of GALEO), one of the suing organizations, told Atlanta Progressive News.
The Plaintiffs are demanding that the district boundaries for the Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners and the Gwinnett County Board of Education are redrawn so minorities can win political representation.
“This case is about political power and the exclusion of racial minorities from key elected positions in the county,” Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, one of the Plaintiff’s attorneys, said in a statement.
“This exclusion is directly attributable to the discriminatory configuration of the district maps and racially polarized voting, in violation of the Voting Rights Act,” Clarke said.
“Not only have Gwinnett County voters never elected any Black, Latino, or Asian-American candidate to county office, but the county’s elected officials are unresponsive to the needs of the county’s Black, Latino, and Asian-American citizens,” the Complaint, a copy of which was obtained by APN, said.
The lawsuit was in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia.
“Fifty-four percent of the county’s population is severely impacted, because the County Commission and the School Board make decisions every day that impact the minority communities’ lives, whether it’s agreements with 287 (g) with immigration that the Gwinnett County Government is funding or bad decisions to target minority students in the school system,” Gonzales said.
Gonzales referred to a June 2016 decision by the Gwinnett Board of Commissioners to give the green light to Sheriff Butch Conway’s office to continue to implement a controversial program that allows sheriff’s deputies to start the deportation process of inmates from the jail itself.
Commissioners did this despite evidence that the Sheriff’s office agreement with Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) leads to racial profiling and reduces trust between immigrants and people of color and law enforcement, Human Rights attorney Azadeh Shahshahani, Legal & Advocacy Director of Project South, a social justice organization, told Atlanta Progressive News.
“If the County Commission was more representative of the makeup of the populace in Gwinnett County, which is actually one of the most diverse places in the entire Southeast, maybe they would have given more thought before going ahead and renewing this agreement,” Shahshahani said.
Civil rights groups had documented cases of immigrants stopped for minor traffic infractions and arrested for driving without a license. Once in custody, they have been processed for deportation, despite not having a criminal record.
In many cases children had been left behind.
In 2010, the ACLU had requested the Department of Homeland Security’s Office for Civil Liberties and Civil Rights to terminate the ICE’s 287(g) program in Gwinnett.
“There are no Latino, or African American, or Asian voices on the School Board, so those voices, what we have seen in the past, are traditionally ignored,” Gonzalez said.
“The Superintendent has not been very proactive with the minority community, I have seen him being kind of hostile towards Latino parents.”
The lawsuit sees this lack of representation as a contributing factor in problems encountered by some non-white students.
“Minority students in the County’s schools continue to face discrimination through the disproportionate use of school discipline on students of color, which contributes to pushing children out of their public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems,” the Complaint says.
A spokesperson for the Gwinnett County Government said that the lawsuit had not been served on Gwinnett County.
The spokesperson for the Gwinnett County Public Schools could not be reached for comment.