Chilton integration system upheld
Dillard case is final in series of landmark voting lawsuits

Published August 21st 2007 in Birmingham News
A federal appeals court on Monday delivered a victory to activists who integrated the Chilton County Commission, ruling on the last of more than 150 lawsuits that reshaped the way Alabamians elect local officials statewide.

The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta overturned a lower court's decision, and left in place an election system that led to black representation on the commission. The suit was the last of the so-called "Dillard suits," which challenged the at-large voting system that civil rights activists said kept county commissions, city commissions and school boards all over the state almost exclusively white.

James Blacksher, an attorney who represented civil rights activists in the Chilton County suit and many of the Dillard suits, said the suit was the only one remaining unresolved after 20 years of litigation.

"The consent decree is secure," he said. "That means the election system the Chilton County Commission has been using since 1988 remains the only lawful system they can use."

In 1985 Luverne resident John Dillard filed a class-action lawsuit against nine counties, seeking the elimination of at-large elections in which voters from all parts of a county vote for the same slate of candidates. Even in counties where there were large numbers of black voters, there typically were no black county commissioners, city commissioners or school board members, the suit contended.

Most of the counties settled, agreeing to create voting districts, but a handful of counties refused and the legal action dragged on.

In March of 1987 the plaintiffs asked that the list of defendants be expanded to include every county commission, city commission and school board in the state that elected its members at large. The expanded lawsuit then was broken up, with a total of 192 local governments in the state named as defendants in more than 150 class-action suits.

Dillard was chosen by the Alabama Democratic Conference, the black political organization behind the suits, to be the named plaintiff in all of them. The retired Vietnam veteran was picked because he had a military pension and didn't fear being fired because of his involvement, Dillard and civil rights activists said.

Chilton County in 1988 agreed to a deal under which it would reform its election procedures.

The county agreed to increase the number of county commissioners from four to seven, to replace at-large voting with a "cumulative" at-large system, and to rotate the chairmanship among the members to ensure blacks would serve in the post.

Since 1988, Chilton County voters have each cast up to seven votes in the commission races. They can distribute their seven votes any way they like, including voting seven times for a single candidate. The seven candidates with the most votes win. Advocates say that system has led to consistent black representation on the commission.

But in 2003 two white Chilton County residents sued, arguing that the federal district court exceeded its authority and violated the 10th and 11th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution when it agreed to the deal.

The appeals court on Monday did not rule on the merits of the case, but said the residents who filed the appeal lacked standing to sue because they weren't personally harmed by the reform of the voting system.

The Dillard lawsuits are credited by civil rights activists, legal scholars and historians with giving blacks their first real representation in local government in Alabama since the end of slavery. Before the suits were filed, there were only a handful of blacks in local elected office. Today, more than 17 percent of local offices are held by blacks, according to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. That makes Alabama one of just four states in the nation with a percentage of black elected officials in double figures.

Dillard, who now is 70 years old and still lives in Luverne, wasn't even aware that a civil rights lawsuit bearing his name was still being adjudicated until a reporter told him recently.

"I haven't been following it," he said. "But I sure am glad it's been resolved."

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