In new tactic, blacks use voting rights law to gain judgeships in the South

The courtroom, across much of the South, is among the last white preserves in government. Of 91 trial judges in Mississippi, one is black. The state lacks a single black district attorney. Yet blacks fill more than two-thirds of Mississippi prison cells. Similar imbalances turn up in other Southern states.

A new strategy aims to put more blacks in judges' robes in nine states. Civil rights activists are suing under the Voting Rights Act to redesign judicial elections - using a well-worn plow to till new ground.

The suits are making steady headway in federal courts, despite qualms over heightened political pressure on judges - one alleged result of redesigned elections. Petitioners in a Louisiana case asked last month for a United States Supreme Court hearing, the ultimate test of the strategy.

Until recently, the Voting Rights Act was not applied to judicial elections, on the theory that judges are not elected to represent their constituents but to be independent.

But a 1984 lawsuit in Mississippi argued that black voters have the same rights in judicial elections as in other contests. Under an order issued by the judge, large, multi-judge voting districts that dilute even large black voting blocs have been cut into smaller pieces.

Similar suits quickly followed in other states. Even their opponents consider their prospects good.

``The root problem we're trying to cure is the near-absence of black citizens in the courts and on the bench,'' says Robert McDuff, an attorney with the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

Few black lawyers or activists complain of overt racial bias from white judges. But black lawyers and defendants question the fairness in subtler ways of a system so dominated by whites.

``The system would be perceived in the black community as fairer with black judges on the bench,'' says Carroll Rhodes, plaintiffs' lawyer in the Mississippi case and black himself. ``It would make blacks feel easier.''

Richard Rehfeldt, a lawyer who practices before the state's lone black trial judge, adds: ``Most of the black clients up there like going before a black judge. They think he'll be fair.''

John Walker, a black lawyer in Jackson who has managed several election campaigns for black judicial candidates, describes black candidates losing despite far superior credentials and experience.

If the new districts emerging from the courts can elect more black judges, he says, ``it opens up the whole system. It makes it a system that more accurately represents the whole population.''

But smaller districts may have a cost, too, in terms of judicial independence. Small, single-judge districts are considered more prone to political pressure from constituents than larger, multi-judge districts are.

Reuben V. Anderson, the lone black justice on Mississippi's Supreme Court (he was appointed), testified in 1986 to his own mixed view of single-judge districts: ``If I were a black seeking that office, I would want to run under a system like that. I would not want to serve under a system like that.''

District Judge Fred Banks, the state's lone black trial judge (also appointed to office), agrees: ``From a political science viewpoint, this is a step in the wrong direction as far as an independent judiciary is concerned. But the law doesn't seek an independent judiciary. It seeks to protect the constitutional rights of voters, a competing concern.''

The courts in Mississippi, as elsewhere, have already opened up dramatically to blacks over the past 20 years. Blacks are now common on juries and police forces. In 1968, fewer than 10 black lawyers belonged to the Mississippi bar. Now, Judge Banks notes, over 200 black lawyers practice here - still a small percentage of lawyers in the state, but a dramatic increase nonetheless.

Suits challenging judicial elections are currently pending in Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina, Texas, Illinois, and Ohio.

The principle of applying the Voting Rights Act to judicial elections has been affirmed so far in the federal appeals courts for the Fifth Circuit in New Orleans and the Sixth Circuit in Cincinnati.

Now the US Supreme Court has been asked to rule on a suit against Louisiana for electing all trial and appeals court judges from multi-judge districts.

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