By Verna Gates
CLANTON, Alabama (Reuters) - Alabama wants a federal court in Washington to confirm that its redistricting plan for the state's Republican-controlled legislature does not violate the Voting Rights Act, the landmark 1960s law that bars discrimination on the basis of race or color.
The lawsuit filed on Thursday by Alabama's attorney general is required under a provision of the 1965 act that requires state and local governments with a history of discrimination to obtain federal approval when any electoral changes, such as redistricting, are proposed.
The latest 2010 Census showed population gains and losses in some metropolitan areas in Alabama, creating the need to redistrict legislative seats. Areas such as inner city Birmingham, the state's largest city, are losing residents, while nearby Shelby County, which is predominantly white, is gaining them.
Democratic critics of the redistricting plan say it is a bald bid by the Republicans to cement the gains they made during the 2010 elections, when Republicans took control of the Alabama House and Senate for the first time in 136 years. Republicans holds 60 of the 105 seats in the House and 22 of the 35 seats in the Senate.
"This is purely gerrymandering," said state Representative John Rogers, a Jefferson County Democrat who chairs the legislature's Black Caucus. "This is about Republicans staying in power, pure and simple."
The Voting Rights Act, passed during the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, was deemed necessary to fortify existing federal anti-discrimination laws, including the 15th Amendment guaranteeing the right of all citizen to vote. President Lyndon Johnson signed the law on August 6, 1965.
Section 5 of the Act requires prior approval, known as the "preclearance provision," from the U.S. Department of Justice - either through an administrative procedure or a three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court - of any voting changes in the states covered by the Voting Rights Act.
Thursday's lawsuit also asks the court to find the preclearance" provision unconstitutional if the judges do not grant a declaratory judgment.
SUIT HEADING FOR WASHINGTON
"For years, we have thought the ... preclearance rule was unconstitutional," said Joy Patterson, spokeswoman for Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange, an elected Republican. "There are two options available through the law - administrative and judicial. Alabama, like other states, has chosen the judicial option."
The case will be resolved by a three-judge District Court in the District of Columbia.
Shelby County, which is 85 per cent white, has also filed a petition with the U.S. Supreme Court to escape the expense and burden of the supervised elections required by the Voting Rights Act, arguing that the pre-clearance requirement unfairly targets selected governments based on an outdated formula.
The state's legal move is in part a rebuttal to a suit brought by Democrats and the state Black Caucus, according to state Representative Patricia Todd, a Democrat from Jefferson County.
Rogers, the Jefferson County Democrat, accused the state of "packing," black voters in black districts and white voters in white seats in order to sabotage white Democrats who traditionally poll well with black voters.
"White Democrats are going to be an endangered species," Rogers said.
(Editing by David Adams and Philip Barbara)