Consent judgement entered in Jones County voting rights lawsuit

The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, with the law firms of Cleary Gottlieb Steen and Hamilton LLP and Patterson Harkavy LLP announced a settlement in the federal voting rights lawsuit filed on behalf of black voters in Jones County, North Carolina. Filed in February, the lawsuit alleged that the method of electing the County Board of Commissioners—the five-member body that makes critical and wide-ranging decisions impacting Jones County residents—diluted the voting strength of African American voters, in violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. The District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina approved the consent judgment and decree which will replace the at-large method used to elect the Board with a system of single-member districts.

Due to racially polarized voting in Jones County, African-American voters have consistently shown overwhelming support for African-American candidates running for the County Board. Yet, an African-American candidate has not been elected to the Jones County Board of Commissioners since 1994 due to a lack of support from white voters in Jones County. The lawsuit alleged that the lack of African-American representation resulted in “systemic neglect” of the needs and concerns of African Americans in the county.

“This important victory ensures that African-American voters in Jones County will have an opportunity elect representatives of their choice” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “For over 20 years, the Board of Commissioners could willfully ignore the needs or concerns of nearly a third of the Jones County community. The Voting Rights Act continues to be a powerful tool to safeguard the rights of African-American voters in Jones County and beyond.”

Under consent judgment and decree, Jones County will add two seats to the Board of Commissioners – increasing the number of representatives from five to seven members. Each seat will be elected from a single-member district. Two of the seven members will be elected from districts where African Americans make up the majority of voters.

“This case illustrates the importance of representation” said Jonathan Blackman, Partner at Cleary Gottlieb. “We are pleased to have been able to help in bringing about a result that gives African-American citizens of Jones County an equal opportunity to elect candidates of their choice for their County government. Going forward, all citizens of the County will benefit from this change.”

“We are glad that the system for electing Jones County commissioners is now fair for all citizens, black and white,” said Patterson Harkavy attorney Burton Craige.