WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court Thursday struck down Republican-chosen Alabama constituencies that civil rights activists say discriminated against black voters in a surprise reaffirmation of the landmark Voting Rights Act.
The court in a vote of 5-4 ruled against Alabama, that is, the map of the seven congressional districts, which heavily favors the Republicans, will now be redrawn. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Brett Kavanaugh, both conservatives, joined the court’s three liberals in a majority.
In doing so, the court, which has a 6-3 conservative majority, rejected the state’s effort to make it more difficult to address concerns raised by civil rights advocates that the power of black voters in states like Alabama is waning. diluting by dividing voters into districts where white voters dominate.
In Thursday’s ruling, Roberts, speaking for the majority, said a lower court had correctly found that the congressional map violated voting rights law.
He wrote that there are genuine fears that the Voting Rights Act “could impermissibly elevate race in the allocation of political power” and that the Alabama ruling “will not diminish or ignore those concerns.”
Instead, the court “simply holds that a faithful application of our precedents and a fair reading of the record before us do not confirm them here,” Roberts added.
As such, the court left open future challenges to the law, and Kavanaugh wrote in a separate opinion that his vote did not rule out challenges to Section 2 based on whether there is a time when the 1965 law authorizes consideration of the race in redistricting is no longer justified.
The two consolidated cases arose from litigation over the new congressional district map that was drawn up by the Republican-controlled Alabama Legislature after the 2020 census. Challengers, including individual voters and the Alabama State Conference of the NAACP, said the map violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act by discriminating against black voters.
“Fortunately, the court today identified Alabama’s redistricting scheme as a textbook violation of historic civil rights law,” said Abha Khanna, an attorney for the plaintiffs who challenged the maps.
The new map created a district of seven in the state in which black voters would likely be able to elect a candidate of their choice. The challengers say the state, which has a population that is more than a quarter black, should have two such districts and provided evidence that such a district could be drawn.
A lower court agreed in a ruling last January, saying that, based on Supreme Court precedent, the plaintiffs had shown that Alabama’s black population was large and compact enough for there to be a majority-black second district. . The court ordered a new map drawn, but the state’s Republican attorney general, Steve Marshall, appealed to the Supreme Court, which stayed litigation and agreed to hear the case.
Four conservative justices, led by Justice Clarence Thomas, dissented from Thursday’s ruling.
Thomas wrote that his preferred outcome “would not require the federal judiciary to decide the correct racial distribution of Alabama’s congressional seats.”
It added that under the approach taken by the lower court, Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act “is nothing more than a racial right to roughly proportional control of elective offices… wherever different racial groups consistently prefer different candidates ”.
Last year, the Supreme Court split 5-4 on allowing the Republican-drawn map to be used in the November election, and Roberts joined the court’s three liberals in dissent. Kavanaugh then indicated that his vote to allow the map to be used was based on the lower court’s decision being issued too close to the election.
Republicans won six of the seven seats in the election, while Democrats won the majority-black district. Since black voters are more likely to vote Democratic, the Democrats could have gotten an additional seat if a new map had been adopted.
The Alabama case was one of several in which Supreme Court decisions may have helped Republicans win their fragile majority in the House of Representatives.
Alabama argued that the lower court placed too much emphasis on race in reaching its conclusions. Marshall said in the court papers that the fact that the challengers were able to show using computer-generated maps that it was possible to draw a second majority-black district was not sufficient evidence that the state’s actions were discriminatory. He cited other traditional “race-neutral” mapping factors that take into account issues such as regional culture and identity, as well as the requirement that districts have populations of similar size.
Richard Pildes, an election law expert at New York University Law School, said the ruling is “more significant… going forward than simply reaffirming the status quo.”
That’s because the court effectively endorsed the use of computer-generated maps in challenging districts. The new technology makes it easier to find maps that could be challenged under the Voting Rights Act, he added.
The Supreme Court has weakened the Voting Rights Act in two cases over the past decade, beginning in 2013 when it struck down a key provision of the law that allowed federal oversight of election law changes in certain states. In a 2021 ruling stemming from Arizona, the court made it harder to bring cases under Section 2.
The case is one of three the court is hearing in the current term in which conservative lawyers are pushing what they call racially neutral arguments favored by the right as a way to remedy racial profiling. In others, the court could end affirmative action on college admissions and strike down part of a law that gives preference to Native Americans seeking to adopt Native American children.
The court is also considering another major election-related dispute in its current term, and the court is set to rule on a Republican effort to curb the ability of state courts to enforce state constitutional provisions in federal elections. That ruling, expected later this month, could make it easier for Republican legislatures to restrict voting rights.