City Council Readies Voting Rights Lawsuit

Action attempts to prevent splitting of Cambridge voters

The city of Cambridge sent a legal complaint to several state officials yesterday, taking a major step in formalizing its impending lawsuit against the state, which challenges the legality of recent redistricting that eliminated the traditionally minority 28th representative district.

The city has signed on a major Washington law firm, Jenner and Block, to try its case—which it will pursue if and when the House redistricting plan passes through the Senate and is signed into law, according to Terrence F. Smith, the mayor’s chief of staff.

“The firm came up as one that had the experience we needed to file this sort of case,” Smith said.

Jenner and Block represents democrats in their redistricting battles nationwide, according to Assistant Professor of Law Heather K. Gerken.

“[Jenner and Block] specializes in redistricting,” said Gerken, who worked for the firm before coming to Harvard. “These guys are the best in the business.”

All of the city councillors have signed on as plaintiffs, except for Timothy P. Toomey, Jr., who also serves as a state representative. Saundra Graham, who said she was “the first minority to represent the seat” of the 28th district, has also joined the suit.

The suit could set a precedent on the extent of the Voting Rights Act, according to Gerken.

In its complaint, Cambridge lays out two claims about the redistricting. First, the suit asserts that the new districts “unduly fragment and divide the city of Cambridge”—and thus violate a state law which stipulates that neighborhoods must be kept together in redistricting.

The complaint also alleges that the Voting Rights Act was violated in the elimination of the 28th district “because the result will be to dilute the African-American and Hispanic voting strength in the Cambridge area, and statewide.”

This Voting Rights Act violation could be the suit’s stronger claim, according to Gerken.

“[The courts] are especially protective of the rights of racial minorities,” Gerken said.

But in Cambridge, a Voting Rights Act claim is unusual, because although the 28th district has traditionally elected minority representatives, its population is not a “majority minority.”

“The more conventional claim involves a majority minority district,” Gerken said. But no law limits the Voting Rights Act to protect only districts which have more than 51 percent minority residents, Gerken said.

“There’s a lot of debate right now about what constitutes a Voting Rights Act violation,” Gerken said.

This is a recent debate, according to Gerken.

“In the old days, you had to have 51 percent to constitute a majority minority district,” Gerken said. “The question is, can you have a district that is less than 50 percent minority that still allows minorities to elect their candidate of choice.”

Every 10 years, with the release of Census data, redistricting occurs—and redistricting controversies arise.

The question of the Voting Rights Act’s extent is a major one in this year’s batch of redistricting, according to Gerken.

“Every decade, there’s a whole new set of suits and a whole new set of questions,” she said.

The state Senate may vote on the redistricting today, according to Smith. The legislation faces a Nov. 5 deadline, to ensure next year’s candidates will have one year to live in their new districts.

The complaint was sent to Senate President Thomas F. Birmingham ’72, House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran, Acting Governor Jane M. Swift and Secretary of the Commonwealth William F. Galvin. If the House-passed redistricting becomes law, the complaint will likely become a lawsuit within a month.

—Staff writer Lauren R. Dorgan can be reached at dorgan@fas.harvard.edu.