Here’s Jonathan Hertzberg’s compendium of subway scenes from 1970s movies. It provokes some thought on the construction of a spatial imaginary through visual culture, and how that imaginary endures.
In 1972 the American Civil Liberties Union represented a group of plaintiffs, many members of the Atlanta chapter of the National Welfare Rights Organization, in a suit that demanded the adoption of a metropolitan school integration plan that would have functionally consolidated the school systems of the city of Atlanta and Fulton and surrounding counties. The US Supreme Court’s decision in Milliken v. Bradley, which overruled the Michigan Supreme Court and declared that suburban school districts could not be compelled to join in a similar metropolitan desegregation plan for Detroit, essentially rendered Armour v. Nix moot. You can and most definitely should read about Armour within the long and contentious context of school desegregation in Atlanta in Tomiko Brown-Nagin’s outstanding book The Courage to Dissent.
I’d like to focus a bit on how the defendants in Armour invoked the differentiation of metropolitan space as a foundation of freedom and liberty. In a 1973 motion asking for dismissal, the defendant school systems invoked an understanding of federalism worthy of junior high social studies, in which
the far greater worth of strong city and county government really lies in keeping that ultimate reality of all political life, “the power to decide,” as close to the people as possible in as many areas affecting their daily lives as possible.
What the Armour plaintiffs pointed out was that one person’s or community’s power to decide to maintain a political division between their school district and neighboring ones severely impinged on others’ power to realize integrated and quality education for their children. This observation was glaringly obvious, even in a cultural context where local control carried the ideological weight for segregation. The defendants were compelled to admit that
In education, as elsewhere, of course, the price (if it can be called a price) of keeping government close to the people is lack of uniformity. When the power to decide is in the hands of the many rather than the few, it is to be expected that decisions will differ….
Needless to say, county to county and city to city diversities of this sort permeate local governmental activities generally. The differences are accepted as an inherent consequence of the very existence of local government (the power to decide obviously being inclusive of the power to differ). Nor have these diversities ever been thought of as posing problems under the “equal protection clause” of the Fourteenth Amendment.
This blithe dismissal of the consequences of political fragmentation as the outcome of decisions the residents of different localities made represents an opportunistic application of public choice theory to rationalize deep spatial inequalities (a subject I’ve addressed here), but it also signals a particular historical turning point for American racism toward the strategic embrace of color-blindness. Just as public choice as a theory evolved in dialogue with changing spatial practices in suburbanizing America, the invocation of individual choice to explain away glaring racial inequities was an ideological maneuver rooted in the metropolitanization of America and the adaptation of white supremacy to a new spatial form and a mode of expression characterized by privilege more than oppression.
Indeed, one of the most effective rhetorical maneuvers of color-blind racism–placing the burden of proof on claimants of racism–was in full effect in the defendants’ motion:
The fact that there is a concentration of black citizens in Atlanta, New York, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, and virtually all other major urban centers of the United States is generally known. Yet there seems to be little if any agreement as to the reasons for this demographic pattern. We think it unlikely that any precise, all-inclusive answer, will ever be arrived at to replace the present speculation.
Since there was absolutely no way to ever reach the conclusion that racism accounted for this admittedly severe deviation from random population distribution, then courts supporting metropolitan desegregation would be engaging with social engineering that, for dubious benefits, risked not the particular prerogatives of the region’s white suburbanites but liberty itself:
plaintiffs would deprive the State and its citizens of a long established political liberty (i.e. the right to establish and maintain autonomous city and county governments for the control of public education, police power, and the numerous other functions and services in which local governments have traditionally been engaged)….
One of the difficulties I have as a historian with much of the sociological literature on color-blind racism is that, for all its sophistication in identifying rhetorical constructions and their usefulness in particular social contexts, that literature tends to assume a sweeping change in the dominant ideological expression of white supremacy without exploring how that change took place–i.e., after the Civil Rights movement, it was no longer socially acceptable to invoke biological racial difference as a justification for white supremacy, necessitating subtler ideological constructs. But if ideologies are in one sense interpretive frames through which one makes sense of the world, they are also strategies for getting what one wants. Ideologies don’t work in the abstract; they can reproduce and spread only to the extent that they work in repeated iterations of similar circumstances. In this case, what the defendant school systems in the counties around Atlanta and their nearly all-white constituencies wanted was to avoid integration, and they could get it by invoking local control, exercised through their county school systems, as a pillar of Americanism while simultaneously playing dumb about why the metro area’s black residents overwhelmingly lived in Atlanta.
One of the things that Armour helps us to understand, then, is that shifts to color-blind expressions of white racism quite literally took place–that is, they took the kinds of places, and the kinds of material and social privileges and interests organized by place, that suburbanization created across the nation after World War II.
Controversy erupts (via Lawyers, Guns & Money) over a plan to remove toxic sediment from the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn and “dewater” it in a yet-unbuilt facility in Red Hook, where it will be mixed with cement. This, the EPA suggests, will render the material inert and also allow it to be used as landfill to expand a dock property owned by a connected developer.
This may be all legit. But there are a few things to consider:
First, even if there is no future catastrophe–a Sandy-type storm, i.e.–the plan emphatically redistributes risk. It takes material that is undeniably putrid, but somewhat contained in the Gowanus Canal, and moves it to a location where it is temporarily much more exposed and vulnerable to dispersal by flood water, wind, or trucking/containment failure, augmenting risk to human health in Red Hook to ameliorate risks to developers’ and politicians’ interests in now-trendy Park Slope-adjacent areas that abut the Gowanus.
Second, the procedural equity of this decision-making process appears to be sorely lacking, meaning that the people bearing the proposed risk are positioned like the pins at the end of the bowling alley–once the ball’s rolling, they’re at a profound disadvantage, forced to bear the burden of proof that they face risk, constructed in the media as NIMBY opponents of job growth, and accused of blocking something that will benefit all New Yorkers.
Third, and this is something that many academics would do well to understand better, in the age of neoliberal governance, the arrival of the EPA on the scene is not the equivalent of the cavalry arriving in Stagecoach. As Ryan Holifield points out , the EPA has absorbed the critical demands of the environmental justice movement by recasting itself as a manager of the triad of community concerns, legal remediation requirements, and budgets, whether or not this translates into, uh, y’know, environmental protection.
Fourth, any time is a great time to re-read Julie Sze’s Noxious New York , but especially now.
 Holifield, Ryan. “Neoliberalism and Environmental Justice in the United States Environmental Protection Agency: Translating Policy into Managerial Practice in Hazardous Waste Remediation.” Geoforum 35, no. 3 (2004): 285–297. [see also this volume]
 Sze, Julie. Noxious New York: The Racial Politics of Urban Health and Environmental Justice. Urban and Industrial Environments. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2007.
I have a talk to give on Friday at the Atlanta Studies Symposium about the 1990s tax revolt in Fulton County. I am seriously considering peeling off and relating the life story of Moreton Rolleston instead. He was a player in that tax revolt, though his significance as a figure in making present-day Atlanta is probably better summed up by his early days as a segregationist and the nearly unbelievable turn of events in his later life, a coincidence that is too amazing for me not to blog about it now. I suppose that for many Atlanta residents the climax of the story might be well-known fact, but I find it absolutely mind-blowing.
In 1964, Rolleston, the owner of the Heart of Atlanta Motel, filed suit immediately after the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Rolleston was part of a semi-organized movement of businessmen who hoped to fight integration on the hill of private enterprise by claiming the right to operate a private business by serving whatever customers they chose. The United States Supreme Court said otherwise. Rolleston didn’t do too badly all things considered, as he sold his hotel for more than $11 million rather than be compelled to operate it on an integrated basis. I imagine that took some of the sting out.
Nonetheless, Rolleston was not done fighting the power on behalf of affluent white Atlantans, launching litigation against Fulton County tax reassessments in the early 1990s that rectified an effective tax subsidy for the county’s richest residents that resulted from longstanding underassessment of property. His North By Northwest Civic Association won in a lower court, but the Georgia Supreme Court upheld an appeal by Atlanta and Fulton County’s tax assessor. Once again, Rolleston lost a big battle.
But that was nothing compared to what lay in store….
Rolleston’s Buckhead home was seized to satisfy a legal malpractice judgment for a former client against Rolleston. The property was sold to the African American filmmaker Tyler Perry, who demolished Rolleston’s former house to build his new 30,000 square foot mansion. For reasons that Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter D.L. Bennett could only hint at, Rolleston sued Perry, claiming to be the true owner of the property. This aggressive litigation culminated in Rolleston’s disbarment at age 89 in 2007. I can only speculate about his motives, and Rolleston insisted he was the legal owner of the property to the end, but I can only imagine that seeing a ridiculously wealthy black man bulldoze his house to put up a significantly larger one was something that the segregationist crusader wouldn’t take lying down.
There’s a lot to dislike about Tyler Perry’s films, but if he goes down as the guy who drove Moreton Rolleston around the bend, that’s a point in his favor that not even another dozen Madea films can erase.
Bennett, D L. “22 Years of Twists, Turns for Tyler Perry’s Property.” The Atlanta Journal – Constitution, September 26, 2007.
———. “Attorney Disbarred over Turf War Ending with Entertainer.” The Atlanta Journal – Constitution, October 10, 2007.
In my research for an upcoming talk on the 1990s tax revolt in north Fulton County, I’ve had a revelation of sorts about one way in which white privilege is institutionalized and perpetuated (to be clear, this is a personal revelation, not a thought unprecedented in the annals of urban political economy). Ironically, this mechanism, the ad valorem tax on real estate, has been a principal boogeyman in the reactionary politics of privatism, public retrenchment and racial resentments of what George Lipsitz and Barbara Tomlinson describe as
a small cadre of affluent individuals—who comprise what surely must be the most sullen, surly, self-pitying, and sadistic group of “haves” in the history of the world.
How can this be? Aren’t taxes the instrument by which the poor, minorities, liberals, and other members of the 47% steal from upstanding taxpayers? Let’s do some quick history, drawing first on a Research Atlanta report by David Sjoquist and Drew Warwick , whose analysis is the basis for my summary of events below, to frame the conditions of the tax revolt.
In 1989 Fulton County’s tax digest (its list of every assessed property and its assessed taxes) was rejected by the Georgia Revenue Commissioner, who found that the county was
1. Violating state law because its overall tax digest fell nearly 10 percentage points short of the statutory requirement for property to be assessed at 40 percent of fair market value.
2. Assessing property at wildly uneven rates; a few properties were assessed above 40 percent of fair market value, most were assessed less, and some, mostly high-value residences, were assessed at much less than 40 percent.
These determinations were made through a sales ratio study conducted by the state Department of Audits on the order of the Revenue Commissioner. A sales ratio study compares the ratio of tax assessments to the sale price of properties sold in the jurisdiction that year to determine if assessments were in line with market value.
Atlanta and Fulton County’s flunking of this audit precipitated a fateful series of events. Atlanta and Fulton County, and their Joint Board of Tax Assessors, hired the firm of Cole, Layer and Trumble to perform a mass reappraisal of all Fulton County properties (more than 230,000!) based on a comprehensive sales ratio study. Fulton County was forced to acknowledge that it had been breaking state law by underassessing property. New legislation passed in 1988 also forced the two governments and their joint tax board to take swift and decisive action, or face stiff fines from the state. Atlanta and Fulton elected to bite the bullet and impose the assessment hikes all at once, rather than ratcheting up assessments gradually. The results were dramatic; virtually no property owners were spared an upward reassessment, but the most dramatic assessment hikes affected the owners of more valuable properties. It wasn’t unusual for residents of affluent neighborhoods to see their assessments double.
One might think that, since a sales ratio study makes the “free market” the yardstick by which tax assessments are evaluated, political opposition would be minimized, and the right-leaning homeowners who are prone to protest their tax bills would be placated. After all, it wasn’t some county bureaucrat arbitrarily making assessments, but the aggregated wisdom of the “free market”–the same force that was helping them to grow equity. As Sjoquist and Warwick put it,
Despite the shock that residents face in dealing with the new assessments, the new state procedures should result in more equitable assessments.
Since you’re reading and I’m writing this, you might correctly surmise that many taxpayers focused more on the “tax hike” aspect of the reassessment than on the “bringing assessments into compliance with the law” aspect–let alone any consideration of “paying one’s fair share.” In fact, the reassessments prompted the formation of taxpayers’ rights organizations, and launched the careers of many north Fulton Republicans who capitalized on the convergence of spiking tax bills and the prevailing sentiment that the region’s affluent were being soaked to support welfare recipients. The two most notable of these were Robert Proctor and Mitch Skandalakis, who were joint counsel in a taxpayers’ organization lawsuit against Atlanta, Fulton County, the Joint Board of Tax Assessors, and Cole-Layer-Trumble over the reassessment , and who used their new identities as tax warriors as a springboard to further political endeavors. In Skandalakis’s case, this involved a successful run for Chair of the Fulton County Commission and an unsuccessful 1998 run for Lieutenant Governor marred by extensive race-baiting of black Atlanta-area Democratic officials in his Ralph Reed-managed campaign. Proctor continued to sue virtually every government agency in Fulton County over taxes and, significantly, affirmative action, along with representing a Waffle House franchisee accused of discrimination against black customers in a briefly notorious lawsuit. (Ironically, after Skandalakis led a campaign to install a new county tax chief, Proctor served as legal counsel for a realty trust that specialized in buying tax liens at discount from the county and seizing the properties).
Proctor (as a civilian gadfly) and Skandalakis (in county government) were among the leaders of a movement that consolidated taxpayer resentment, white racial grudges about black political power, and a rising base of Republican party strength in Atlanta’s northern suburbs into a force that transformed the state and has brought political conflict on the congruent axes of race, party, and geography to a head in Fulton County.
The most ironic part of this is that, far from soaking rich northsiders, the property tax system in Fulton County had been actively subsidizing them for decades. The pattern that the CLT study found in 1989 was the same one discovered by an Atlanta Urban League study of tax assessments in 1971, at the height of white flight. A study by Research Atlanta, Inc. in 1975 referenced the Urban League’s study and a similar national investigation carried out by HUD , and rather delicately explained how race meshed with the “failure of assessment to keep pace with the rapidly changing property values in the county”:
The geographical distribution of neighborhood assessment-sales ratios mentioned above generally follows the trend of upward and downward transitional property values. Thus, houses in the city’s northern neighborhoods, where property values have been rising, had lower than average assessment-sales ratios. On the other hand, inner city neighborhoods, where property values have either declined or not risen as rapidly as the rest of the city, had higher ratios.
Research Atlanta emphasized that the divergence was an effect of assessments lagging behind changes in the market–assessors devoting limited human resources to assessing newly developed property, for example–rather than deliberate attempts by assessors to favor any racial or ethnic group or any neighborhood area. I would not rule out the possibility that pro-development officials on the Fulton County Commission placed some thumbs on the scales so that rapidly booming northside and north Fulton areas would continue to grow without higher tax assessments, but this kind of malfeasance isn’t necessary to support an argument that tax assessments were racially biased against black Atlantans; the kind of property value instability happening in this era–both in terms of property that fell in value and that rose rapidly–was intrinsically tied to the racial identity of owners and neighbors. Further, if properties were reassessed at long or irregular intervals, that meshed with racial bias in the housing market to structure the tax system in whites’ favor.
In an era when (as David Freund ably argues) white suburbanites crafted a political identity around property ownership and a political agenda of racial exclusion justified by the need to protect property values, those homeowners scored a second windfall when tax assessors, whether through sloth, understaffing, or collusion with development interests, allowed tax bills to lag far behind that rising property value. So, while north Fulton tax revolt leaders like attorney Robert Proctor mounted soapboxes to lament the waste of their tax dollars after reassessment, they were utterly silent about the decades-long diversion of taxes whose collection was mandated by state law from the region’s schools and governments. They certainly didn’t thank any of the residents of low-value neighborhoods, whose relatively high assessments represented both a disproportionate share of the costs of government and public services and an effective subsidy to the underassessed rich.
Put it another way: Every dime of difference between the state-mandated assessment of 40 percent of market value and the actual assessment imposed on homeowners was a theft from the public at large.
: Tomlinson, Barbara, and George Lipsitz. “American Studies as Accompaniment.” American Quarterly 65, no. 1 (2013): 1–30. doi:10.1353/aq.2013.0009.
: Sjoquist, Keith R., and Drew A. Warwick. Fulton County’s Mass Reappraisal: Why Was It Necessary? Atlanta, GA: Research Atlanta, Inc., 1993.
: These suits were ultimately decided in favor of the governments. See Lomax v. Lee, 408 SE 2d 788 (GA Supreme Court, 1991).
: Report of the Atlanta Urban League on the Fulton County Property Tax, 1971, cited in .
: Arthur D. Little, Inc, and United States. A Study of Property Taxes and Urban Blight; Report to U.S. Dept. of Housing & Urban Development. Washington: U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development; for sale by the Supt. of Docs., U.S. Govt. Print. Off, 1973.
: Holmes, Donald E., and Robert W. Pinner. Assessment-sales Ratios in Fulton County and the City of Atlanta. Atlanta: Research Atlanta, 1975.
From a 1967 report Racial Isolation in the Public Schools by the United States Commission on Civil Rights:
To define the extent of racial isolation in the public schools, the Commission collected data on the racial composition of schools in more than 100 city school systems throughout the Nation. The data revealed that racial isolation in the public schools is extensive and has increased since 1954. School segregation is most severe in the Nation’s metropolitan areas where two-thirds of the country’s Negro and white populations now live.
My glib response on reading this in the archives today was “what else is new.” Of course, that’s not an intellectually defensible response, because much has changed. More than 80 percent of Americans now live in metropolitan areas.
My students today discussed an article by Katherine Hankins and Elizabeth Egan Henry in JUH about the small subsets of white parents in Buckhead and Northeast Atlanta neighborhoods who worked as advocates for public schooling from the 1970s to the 1990s. Hankins and Henry paint a compelling picture of how neighborhood school activists, mostly women, mobilized and pressured their neighbors to keep their children in the public schools and school administrators to adapt curricula and resources to the preferences of parent organizations. They tell a story that is in many ways hopeful, in contrast to the story of white flight that Kevin Kruse tells, in which racialized interests in property and political control pushed whites to withdraw not only from the city of Atlanta but from public institutions they saw as racially tainted. I agree that it’s important to recognize the efforts of these activists, because the retreat from compelled desegregation and the Supreme Court’s rejection of voluntary systems of race-aware pupil placement for racial balancing mean that reversing the trend of racial isolation in public schools depends on affluent white people, who have access to a broader range of choice in the marketplace, choosing to live in the same school districts as minorities and to send their kids to those schools.
But understanding the motivations of these activists leaves me less than optimistic about the prospects of neighborhood school activists fully reversing white flight from Atlanta and its schools to the extent that it brings affluent families into urban areas and the children of affluent families into public schools (as my colleague Tyrone Forman points out, this discussion in Atlanta implicates affluent black families as well). In the first place, the return to the city’s public schools was predicated on the accommodation of the neighborhood schools concept in the notorious “Atlanta Compromise” settlement of the Calhoun suit against the Atlanta schools. This agreement affirmed neighborhood schools as the desired standard, rejected wide-scale busing or other measures, and affirmed an entitlement for parents in affluent and whiter-than-average areas to influence the schools their children attended. Residential patterns of racial and economic segregation were baked into this settlement and naturalized. In other words, while these public school-choosing parents consciously rejected flight from the school system, the limits to their progressive politics were sharply circumscribed by a racialized politics of place in which some schools and neighborhoods were “better” and more desirable than others.
The recent announcements of indictments against former Atlanta schools director Beverly Hall and a host of other reformist school officials as part of an apparent widespread conspiracy to doctor the answer sheets on standardized tests (which, in bitter irony, secured a half million dollars in performance bonuses for Hall but cost schools money when the cheating bumped them up in class from underperforming to performing schools) make me wonder how far the return to the city will go. From the point of view of affluent whites positioned to choose among metropolitan options, the cheating scandal highlights a number of fearsome elements: the context of low performance, the prospect of the system’s reputation suffering irreparable harm, and, perhaps most importantly, the system’s reorganization around a test-driven reform agenda that parents nationwide are beginning to recognize as detrimental to their children’s learning and intellectual growth. Perhaps the saddest part of the situation is that parents with the social capital, education, and time to mobilize against the “reform” agenda within Atlanta schools are the ones most likely to conclude that the system’s problems might be for other people’s children after all.
1. Henry, Elizabeth Egan, and Katherine Hankins. “Halting White Flight: Parent Activism and the (Re)shaping of Atlanta’s ‘Circuits of Schooling,’ 1973-2009.” Journal of Urban History 38, no. 3 (May 2012): 532–552.
Sine Die is not a rare but catastrophic outcome of trigonometry exam-induced stress (rimshot!) but the end of the General Assembly’s regular session at the Capitol in Atlanta. Barring any urgent business requiring a special session, this particular laboratory of democracy is just about done experimenting until next year.
Although the contemplation of a water war with Tennessee over where the state line crosses the Tennessee River has generated the most attention, far more immediately consequential bills revolve around the collection of taxes in Fulton County. HB 541 proposes doubling the Fulton County Homestead exemption to $60,000, while HB 346 would make the Fulton County Tax Commissioner an appointed official.
note: read here a point-counterpoint between north Fulton Republican and Speaker Pro Tem of the Georgia House Jan Jones and Democratic Fulton County Commission Chairman John Eaves on the impact of the homestead exemption….
update: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports
that the homestead exemption bill’s supporters on Tuesday had largely given up hope of the bill reaching a Senate vote before the end of the session. It’s on the list of pending bills, but not likely to see a vote. that passage now seems likely (after who knows what horse-trading).
These bills join others passed last week that redistrict the Fulton County Commission to create a new Republican seat and give the Fulton County legislative delegation power to choose the head of the County elections board. These bills were sponsored by area Republicans and passed to the floor through a gerrymandered Fulton County delegation that tilts Republican despite the facts that Fulton County is a majority-minority county that voted by nearly two thirds for Barack Obama and five of seven County Commissioners are on record as opposing the slate of local legislation advanced by the Fulton County delegation.
This is an effort by a local minority to appeal to a higher level of government to win its agenda. Jim Galloway explains:
Finally, there was H.B. 347, a bill aimed at the Registration and Elections Board, which came under scrutiny last year when mismanagement caused more Fulton voters to use paper ballots than the rest of the state combined. The fix: allow Fulton’s state legislators, rather than the County Commission, to pick the board’s chairman. That would likely make the board 3-2 Republican rather than 3-2 Democratic.
All this would all happen in an overwhelmingly Democratic county that is 60 percent non-white.
When this involves invoking the Federal Voting Rights Act to protect racial minority interests, it’s an intolerable intrusion on liberty. When it involves a state majority engineering a potential partisan advantage in the administration of elections to boost a partisan minority’s chances, it’s democracy in action.
There’s no doubt that the redrawing of legislative boundaries in 2011 was done to pack the Fulton County legislative delegation with white Republicans (but I repeat myself) from the Atlanta suburbs (but I repeat repeating myself) by creating districts that include small parts of Fulton County and larger parts of outlying (and more conservative) counties. I wrote about this issue without specifying the extent of this districting technique. Johnny Edwards and David Wickert explain:
Until this year, Democrats held a 14-8 majority of Fulton County’s seats in the House and a 4-3 majority in the Senate. But in 2011 the Republican-controlled Legislature redrew House and Senate districts across the state based on 2010 census data.
Now Republicans enjoy a 13-12 edge in Fulton County House seats and a 7-4 majority in the Senate. To accomplish that, they extended districts into Fulton that previously had not included the county.
As a result, 13 of 36 state legislators whose districts now include a piece of Fulton live elsewhere. Four live in Cobb County. Two each live in DeKalb, Gwinnett and Fayette counties. Others live in Cherokee, Coweta and Forsyth. Eleven of the 13 lawmakers who live outside Fulton are Republicans.
State Senator Vincent Fort thinks, as this blog does, that this delegation-packing represents an effort to diminish the authority that local black elected officials can wield over white residents through county government:
“You have a bunch of white Republicans who just resent African-American political power and control over resources,” said state Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta. “They’re willing to do any and everything to take away African-American political power.”
State Senator Mike Crane, who lives 20 miles from the Fulton County line in Coweta and received 835 votes in his recent unopposed bid for reelection from Fulton County voters (out of more than 60,000 total votes), disagrees, and insists that
Fulton will benefit from the quality and principles of the people added to its delegation.
“Give us a little time,” he said. “We’ll prove it to you.”
This blog suspects that increasing the representation of people with two particular qualities–whiteness and Republicanism–were foremost in the minds of the architects of the redistricting. Over the course of this legislative session, those qualities have certainly proven to support a radical redirection of state policy affecting the county.
I also wrote some weeks ago that legislative delegations fall between the cracks of voting rights law. The courts have generally interpreted county legislative delegations as administrative units of the legislatures, meaning that if the districting and apportionment of the whole legislature pass muster under the VRA, then legislatures are largely free to determine the composition of legislative delegations. It doesn’t matter if all of the seats in a delegation lie within the county or not, how much of a county is contained in a seat that is part of the district, if the members of a county’s legislative delegation actually live in the county or not. Most importantly, while the Voting Rights Act protects the ability of minority group voters to elect representatives and guards against vote dilution, legislatures remain free to dilute the power of legislators within local delegations without running afoul of the VRA, on the assumption that these delegations remain subordinate to the legislature as a whole.
State Senator Jason Carter recognizes, in terms that echo this blog’s analysis, that the gerrymandering of the legislative delegation is part of a plan to bypass the Democratic majority in Fulton County, bring local legislation to the floor where the statewide GOP majority aligns with the GOP minority in north Fulton County, and ultimately to give that Republican minority the power to control elections in Fulton County:
“The next thing you do is pack a Fulton delegation with people from outside Fulton County…Then you give power to that gerrymandered delegation over the elections commission. At some point, someone’s going to say you’ve gone too far.
As Jim Galloway explains, this legal doctrine prevented Georgia Democrats from pursuing a suit under the Voting Rights Act to challenge the composition of the delegation. In this the Assembly may have crossed a line that would open the composition of the Fulton County delegation to scrutiny:
When legislative districts were presented to the U.S. Justice Department for approval – as required by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act – Democrats declined to protest the GOP delegation packing.
By law, legislative delegations are only advisory bodies, it was determined. They had no real power.
But H.B. 347 changes that. With the signature of Gov. Nathan Deal, the Fulton legislative delegation will be given real, statutory authority over the county’s election committee. Republicans, Carter explained afterwards, may have just provided Democrats the leg they need to stand on in front of a federal judge and mount a challenge to GOP delegation packing.