Federal judge rules school districts in Georgia school system are illegal

ATLANTA (AP) — A federal judge has ruled that school districts in Georgia's second-largest school system appear unconstitutional and must be quickly redistricted before the 2024 election.

U.S. District Judge Eleanor Ross on Thursday barred the Cobb County School District from using a map supported by the four Republican members of the current board, ruling in one interim disposal that the map “is almost certainly an unconstitutional racist gerrymander.”

Cobb County on Friday asked the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to immediately step in and vacate the order, saying the county was unfairly excluded from the litigation. The district warns that if the appeals court does not act quickly, “plaintiffs’ plan to use the courts to overturn the will of Cobb County voters and replace the properly enacted redistricting plan with one that furthers their own political goals.” “The move forward – without resistance – will therefore be just as successful as the plaintiffs imagined.”

Ross ordered state lawmakers to draw a new map by Jan. 10, which is unlikely to happen unless Gov. Brian Kemp orders a special session. MPs do not meet until January 8, and normal legislative rules do not allow a bill to be passed within three days. The district called the deadline “impossible” and said it deprives lawmakers of a rightful chance to resolve the issues.

That means Ross could draw a new map or 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 board's 4-3 Republican majority. The 106,000-student district is torn from political conflict In the last few yearswith 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 attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which represented the plaintiffs. “Fair maps are critical to the democratic process and ensure that voters of color in Cobb County have an equal voice in schools.”

However, the district claims that the plaintiffs' lawsuit is seeking a Democratic takeover of the board.

“This plan is designed to facilitate plaintiffs’ political capture of the panel as a primary objective in this litigation,” the panel wrote in its appeal.

The lawsuit alleges that Republicans illegally packed black and Hispanic voters into three precincts in the southern part of suburban Atlanta, cementing Republican hold over the remaining four precincts.

Ross agreed and thought the people who drew the map relied too much on race.

The lawsuit is unusual because the school district was previously dismissed, leaving only the Cobb County Board of Elections and Registration as a defendant. This body, like the county commission, is controlled by Democrats and has decided to settle the dispute. The settlement decision, which paved the way for Ross' order, led the school board in October to accuse the election board of colluding with “left-wing political activists” and giving them “significant and undue influence to interfere with the lawfully drawn” maps .

The county calls the board of elections and its director “bogus defendants” and wants the appeals court to re-involve the county in the case. It also asks the appeals court to vacate all recent orders, including the preliminary injunction and reopening of evidence, “to give the district a fair opportunity” to oppose the plaintiffs. It says Ross has “completely ignored” his recent arguments.

On Dec. 6, the plaintiffs asked the appeals court to dismiss an earlier version of the appeal, saying the school district was not a party to the case and that there was no final order from which to appeal.

Hearing in the appeal is scheduled for Jan. 30, but the district is seeking a quicker decision and says Ross could issue a ticket by then.

The school board has spent more than $1 million defending the lawsuit. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has found.