Federal Judges Approve State Congressional Map

Three federal judges approved a new Mississippi congressional map Monday, but some Democrats still hope a plan approved by a state court will be used in this year's election. The federal judges, all appointed to the bench by Republicans, said their map will be used unless the U.S. Justice Department gives ``timely'' approval to the state court plan. The judges did not define ``timely,'' though they earlier said they worried the Justice Department might not act before the March 1 candidates' qualifying deadline.

The Justice Department is checking the state court plan to make sure it's fair to minority voters. A department spokesman last week said Justice has until Feb. 25 to accept or reject the state plan or to request more information about it. The federal judges' plan does not need Justice Department approval. However, Democrats said it may be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Mississippi is losing one of its five U.S. House seats because it grew more slowly than many other states in the 1990s. The federal and the state court plans both create a new central district with areas now represented by the state's two junior congressmen, Republican Chip Pickering and Democrat Ronnie Shows. Under the federal panel's plan, the central district includes the Republican strongholds of Rankin County, southern Madison County and northeastern Hinds County. The state court plan, approved Dec. 21, put those Republican precincts in a district that dipped down from north Mississippi.

The federal court plan has a 30.37 percent black voting age population in the central district. That compared to 37 percent in the state court's central district. Generally, a higher black voting age population favors Democrats and a lower percentage favors Republicans. Republicans had sought a central district with a black voting age percentage near 30 percent.

The federal judges said their plan includes all or part of 14 counties now represented by Pickering and all or part of 14 counties now represented by Shows. Some counties have larger populations than others. Pickering is keeping the urban areas of Meridian, Starkville, Rankin County and southern Madison County. Shows is keeping urban areas in Natchez, Brookhaven and McComb, but is losing most of his Jackson constituents to the Delta district.

Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge E. Grady Jolly of Jackson and U.S. District Judges David Bramlette of Natchez and Henry T. Wingate of Jackson conducted a two-day redistricting trial last week. They have given lawyers until Friday to file comments on the map they released Monday.

The federal judges' plan maintains a majority-black Delta district. It made few changes to the northern district, and it stretches the Gulf Coast district up to Clarke County and eastern Jasper County. The panel's central district cuts a swath from the southwestern corner of the state up to Oktibbeha County, home of Mississippi State University. The biggest point of contention in drawing new district lines has been how to combine areas now represented by Pickering in east central Mississippi and Shows in the southwest.

Lawmakers met in special session in November and deadlocked over a new central district. Democratic activists filed a lawsuit in Hinds County Chancery Court, and Judge Patricia Wise conducted a trial in late December. Wise is elected as an independent, as are all state judges, but she represents a largely Democratic district. Wise approved a plan proposed by Democrats, saying it created a central district that either Pickering or Shows could win. Democrats praised Wise's plan, but Republicans said it would favor Shows.

Redistricting moved to federal court after Republicans filed a separate lawsuit there.