A federal judge has ruled that school board districts in Georgia's second-largest school system appear to be unconstitutionally discriminatory and must be quickly redrawn ahead of 2024's elections.
U.S. District Judge Eleanor Ross on Thursday forbade the Cobb County school district from using a map supported by the current board's four Republican members, finding in an preliminary injunction that the map is "substantially likely to be an unconstitutional racial gerrymander."
The Cobb County district on Friday asked the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to step in immediately and set the order aside, saying the district has been unfairly excluded from the litigation. The district warns that if the appeals court doesn't act quickly, the "plaintiffs’ scheme to use the courts to overthrow the will of Cobb County voters and replace the duly enacted redistricting map with one that advances their own political goals — without opposition — therefore will succeed exactly as plaintiffs envisioned."
Ross ordered state lawmakers to draw a new map by Jan. 10, which will be unlikely unless Gov. Brian Kemp orders a special session. Lawmakers don't convene until Jan. 8 and normal legislative rules don't allow a bill to pass in three days. The district called the deadline "impossible," saying it takes away the legislature's rightful chance to fix the problems.
That means Ross could draw a new map, or could accept a map proposed by the plaintiffs, a group of Cobb County residents and liberal-leaning political groups.
Four board seats are up for election in 2024.
Any new map could upset the 4-3 Republican majority on the board. The 106,000-student district has been riven by political conflict in recent years, with the GOP majority often imposing its will over the protests of the three Democratic members.
"The court’s decision is a resounding victory for voting rights," said Poy Winchakul, senior staff attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center, which represented the plaintiffs. "Fair maps are essential to the democracy process and ensure Cobb County voters of color have an equal voice in schools."
But the district alleges the plaintiffs are pursuing a Democratic takeover of the board through the lawsuit.
"This scheme is destined to facilitate plaintiffs’ political seizure of the board as the overriding goal in this litigation," the board wrote in its appeal.
The lawsuit alleges that Republicans illegally crammed Black and Hispanic voters into three districts in the southern part of the suburban Atlanta county, solidifying Republicans' hold on the remaining four districts.
Ross agreed, finding the people who drew the map relied too much on race.
The lawsuit is unusual because the school district was dismissed earlier, leaving only the Cobb County Board of Elections and Registration as a defendant. That body, like the county commission, is controlled by Democrats, and decided to settle the lawsuit. The decision to settle, which set the stage for Ross' order, prompted the school board in October to accuse the elections board of colluding with "leftist political activists," giving them "considerable and inappropriate influence to interfere with the lawfully established" maps.
The district calls the elections board and its director "sham defendants" and wants the appeals court to put the district back in the case. It's also asking the appeals court to overturn all the recent orders, including the preliminary injunction and re-open discovery "giving the district a fair opportunity" to oppose the plaintiffs. It says Ross "completely ignored" its recent arguments.
The plaintiffs on Dec. 6 asked the appeals court to dismiss an earlier version of the appeal, saying the school district wasn’t a party to the case and there was no final order ripe for appeal.
Oral argument in the appeal is set for Jan. 30, but the district is seeking a quicker decision, saying Ross may impose a map by then.
The school board has spent more than $1 million defending the lawsuit, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has found.