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Roy Barnes: Independent Panels Should Draw Voting Districts

Former governor admits his own role while calling for end to gerrymandering

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Roy Barnes, in a speech at UGA, also said more lawyers should serve in the state legislature.

A former warrior in Georgia's gerrymandering battles told a law school audience that Congress should require independent commissions to redraw legislative and congressional district lines rather than allow state lawmakers to continue the practice.

Former Gov. Roy Barnes had not focused on redistricting in his half-hour speech Friday at the Georgia Association of Law and Politics Symposium hosted in Athens by UGA's law school. Rather, his proposal was prompted by a question from Georgia Court of Appeals Judge Billy Ray II, a former Republican state senator who referred to a recent news report on the rise of majority party districts and their contribution to government gridlock.

"I will tell you, we've got to do something because we're the laughingstock" of the world, Barnes said, noting the recent federal government shutdown. "Something has to be done to equalize these districts or there won't be change in Congress. There are just a very few seats in play."

Barnes recalled how he and Democratic leaders in the Legislature took heat following their 2001 redistricting plan that was found to have marginalized black voters in violation of the Voting Rights Act while trying to strengthen Democratic strongholds in the state General Assembly. The redistricting led to a U.S. Supreme Court battle in Georgia v. Ashcroft, in which the high court ruled 5-4 in 2003 that the lower court should take another look at the maps. A federal panel eventually struck down the House and Senate maps in 2004, deeming them "baldly unconstitutional" because they violated the one person, one vote standard established in the 1964 U.S. Supreme Court case Reynolds v. Sims, 377 U.S. 533.

"It was not my finest hour," Barnes acknowledged, "the gerrymandering that went on after the 2000 census. And neither has it been the finest hour of those who came after me."

But Barnes noted that the man who unseated him in 2002, Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue, also advocated for independent commissions.

Perdue, in an article published in February 2007 by AccessNorthGa.com, said a seven-member appointed council should recommend new district lines to the Legislature. According to Perdue's plan, which was suggested to him by an 11-member task force he created in 2006, Republican and Democratic leaders in the state House and Senate would appoint four of the council's members. The governor would appoint two—only one of whom could be a member of the governor's political party—and the seventh would be chosen at large by the council.

Perdue's former gubernatorial spokesman, Bert Brantley, said via Twitter on Friday that Perdue still supports the idea of an independent commission to reduce partisanship in the redistricting process and often talks about "the dangers of extreme districts."

The crux of Barnes' speech at the symposium was the need for better leadership in politics and law. He pointed to Atlanta's rise as the seat of the South, contrasting it with Birmingham, Ala., which was poised to be a bigger, more important city because of its roots in the steel industry. However, Birmingham's struggle with integration kept it from reaching its potential in the 1960s, Barnes said.

Barnes also lamented the low numbers of lawyers in the Georgia General Assembly, particularly in the judiciary committees.

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