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High Court Declines Missouri District's Appeal Over At-Large Board Voting

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear the appeal of a Missouri school district over its at-large school board elections, which a federal appeals court struck down last year as a violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The case involves the Ferguson-Florissant district, which serves all or part of 11 municipalities in suburban St. Louis, including Ferguson, Mo., where the police shooting of an African-American man sparked weeks of racial unrest in 2014.

The seven-member Ferguson-Florissant school board was all white until 2014, the same year that Michael Brown was shot and killed in an altercation with a white police officer in Ferguson, sparking widespread street protests that focused on police and city policies.

One African-American joined the board in 2014 before the state chapter of the NAACP, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, sued the district alleging that the votes of black citizens were being diluted by the at-large voting system in violation of Section 2 of the federal Voting Rights Act. (There are now three African-American members on the board.)

A federal district court ruled in 2016 that the plaintiffs had proved the preconditions for a Section 2 vote-dilution claim and that the "totality of the circumstances" indicated that the district's black voters had less opportunity to elect their preferred candidates than other members of the electorate.

Last July, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit, in St. Louis, unanimously affirmed the district court's ruling. The court rejected the school district's argument that a racial minority group cannot win a Section 2 claim there because African-Americans make up a majority of the voting-age population in the school district, about 50.3 percent based on the Census Bureau's 2011-13 American Community Survey.

"Minority voters do not lose VRA protection simply because they represent a bare numerical majority within the district," the appeals court said.

The appeals court also said that the election of an African-American to the board in 2015, after the Michael Brown incident, could be construed as a "special circumstance" under the U.S. Supreme Court's tests for applying the VRA. That meant the victory by the black candidate that year did not detract from the district court's conclusion that there was white bloc voting that enabled the bloc to usually defeat the preferred candidate of minority voters.

In its appeal to the Supreme Court in Ferguson-Florissant School District v. Missouri State Conference of the NAACP (Case No. 18-592), the district pointed out that its at-large election system was required by state law. It said that the 8th Circuit court's decision to permit a Section 2 case to go forward even when a minority group forms a numerical majority of voting-age population of the district conflicted with another circuit as well as Supreme Court precedent.

"Furthermore, this case raises issues of substantial importance as the district court has ordered a remedial plan (cumulative voting) that will only serve to harm the African-American community and undermine the very goals of the VRA," the district said in its appeal. The district's brief noted that the federal district court found that in Ferguson-Florissant school elections whites have tended to vote more along racial lines than African Americans have.

"If this is true the increased cohesiveness of the white vote will allow them to better exploit the cumulative voting system," the brief said.

The NAACP plaintiffs did not file a response to the appeal, and the Supreme Court did not request one. The justices on Jan. 7 declined without comment to hear the school district's appeal.

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