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Ruling against Alabama congressional maps could send Georgia lawmakers back to drawing board

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Ruling against Alabama congressional maps could send Georgia lawmakers back to drawing board

Jun 08, 2023 | 6:50 pm ET
By Jill Nolin
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Ruling against Alabama congressional maps could send Georgia lawmakers back to drawing board
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Rep. Bonnie Rich explains the House Redistricting Committee's maps to the House during a special session in 2021. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

This story was updated at 11 a.m. Friday, June 9, 2023. 

A U.S. Supreme Court ruling rejecting Alabama’s voting map will influence the outcome of pending lawsuits challenging district lines drawn in late 2021 here in Georgia.

The 5-4 opinion released Thursday morning offered a surprise blow to the GOP-created congressional maps in Alabama, which had set aside a single majority Black district. 

The Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling that the maps violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits voting practices that discriminate based on race, color or membership in certain language groups.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Trump-nominated Brett M. Kavanaugh joined the court’s three liberal members in keeping the key provision of the 1965 law intact.

By the end of the day, U.S. District Court Judge Steve C. Jones in the Northern District of Georgia had ordered new supplemental briefings in two cases – including one where three lawsuits have been merged – to argue the impact of the Supreme Court decision. The written briefings are due in two weeks.  

“The Supreme Court has now issued its (Allen v. Milligan) opinion and this Court deems it proper to move forward,” Jones wrote in an order Thursday.

The Obama-nominated judge ruled early last year that the 2022 elections should be held under the new maps because of the fast-approaching midterms, but he described it at the time as a “difficult decision.”

Those maps were crafted to give Republicans another seat in the U.S. Congress even as Georgia’s statewide elections have become more competitive. Of Georgia’s 14 congressional seats, Republicans represent nine of them, up from eight last year.

State lawmakers met during a special session in late 2021 to carve up new districts using the 2020 U.S. Census headcount, which was delayed by the pandemic. The maps were approved along party-line votes.

Anthony Michael Kreis, an associate professor of law at Georgia State University, said Thursday that it is likely the resumed court proceedings will lead to Georgia’s maps being redrawn in another special session.

“It’s not a certainty, but I think it’s more likely than not given the court’s very thorough analysis from last year,” Kreis said.

But unlike Alabama, where Democrats are poised to snatch up a new seat, the result of new maps in Georgia could be less dramatic. A more likely outcome in Georgia would be a slightly more competitive seat north of Atlanta, but Kreis said such a district would still have a “pinkish hue.”

“I think the stakes, perhaps, from a partisan perspective, are lower in Georgia redrawing the maps than they are in Alabama,” he said.

Some of the groups involved in the pending legal challenges in Georgia were clearly left encouraged by Thursday’s decision.

“Today’s Supreme Court decision, Allen v. Milligan, keeps in place long-standing – and still critical – Voting Rights Act protections against district maps that dilute the power of voters of color,” Rahul Garabadu, voting rights staff attorney with the ACLU of Georgia, said in a statement.

“The decision’s conclusions also underscore the unlawfulness of the State of Georgia’s maps, which the ACLU of Georgia and its partners are currently challenging in court. We applaud this decision and look forward to soon seeing similar relief for voters in our Georgia redistricting challenge,” he said.

Fair Districts GA, a group that pressed lawmakers to pass more competitive districts, was among those praising Thursday’s ruling. Georgia has five cases pending in federal court that allege racial discrimination in redistricting of congressional and legislative maps.

“Given that the Georgia cases rest on similar principles to those decided in Alabama, we are hopeful that the court will fairly apply the law to the facts and order new maps which better reflect the minority communities in Georgia,” said Ken Lawler, the group’s chair. 

Jack Genberg, senior staff attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, which is also representing plaintiffs in one of the challenges, had this to say: “Today’s ruling reaffirms the Voting Rights Act’s essential role in countering efforts to dilute the voting strength of communities of color. Those challenging Georgia’s redistricting maps under Section 2 of the VRA — and asking courts to order Georgia to draw additional majority-Black districts — will use this ruling to their advantage.”