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U.S. Supreme Court rules Alabama’s congressional maps violate Voting Rights Act


U.S. Supreme Court rules Alabama’s congressional maps violate Voting Rights Act

Jun 08, 2023 | 11:36 am ET
By Brian Lyman
U.S. Supreme Court rules Alabama’s congressional maps violate Voting Rights Act
The Guardian or Authority of Law, created by sculptor James Earle Fraser, rests on the side of the U.S. Supreme Court on September 28, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Al Drago/Getty Images)

The U.S. Supreme Court Thursday upheld a lower court ruling that Alabama’s 2022 congressional maps violated the Voting Rights Act, a ruling that preserves a major part of the law and could lead to new congressional maps in Alabama.

A three-judge panel in January 2022 ruled that maps approved by the Alabama Legislature in 2021 that had a single majority-Black congressional district violated Section 2 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which prohibits voting practices that discriminate based on race, color or membership in certain language groups.

Plaintiffs in the case argued the approach packed Black voters, who tend to vote Democratic, into a single district and made it difficult for those outside the district to elect leaders of their choosing or participate meaningfully in the political process.

The lower court ordered the state to develop a remedy that included a second district with a significant Black population.

Alabama appealed the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that Alabama’s approach to redistricting, which it called “race-neutral,” matched the text of the law. The state argued that it generated millions of potential maps without referencing race, and could glean from that a median number of majority-minority districts.

In a 5-4 decision, Chief Justice John Roberts rejected the state’s argument, as well as arguments from the state that Section 2 did not apply to single-member districts, writing that the state “misunderstands (Section) 2 and our decisions implementing it.”

“A district is not equally open … when minority voters face—unlike their majority peers—bloc voting along racial lines, arising against the backdrop of substantial racial discrimination within the State, that renders a minority vote unequal to a vote by a nonminority voter,” Roberts wrote.

A man in a suit at a podium
Senate Minority Leader Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, speaks in the Alabama Senate on June 6, 2023. (Stew Milne for Alabama Reflector)

Bobby Singleton, the Alabama Senate Minority Leader and a plaintiff in the case, said in a phone interview Thursday he was “surprised” by the ruling but said it was the “right thing to do.”

“The African-American community is grossly underrepresented in Congress,” Singleton said. “This is something that is quite a victory today.”

Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall said in a statement Thursday that the decision was “disappointing,” but “this case is not over.”

A message seeking comment was left with Rep. Chris Pringle, R-Mobile, who helped lead redistricting efforts in the Alabama Legislature in 2021.

Gina Maiola, a spokeswoman for Gov. Kay Ivey, said in a statement Thursday her office was “reviewing the outcome.”

Abha Khanna, who argued the case for the plaintiffs before the U.S. Supreme Court, said in a statement that the Supreme Court “made the right decision today.”

“Alabama’s current congressional map systematically dilutes the voting power of Black Alabamians, in clear violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act,” the statement said. “Thankfully, the Court today identified Alabama’s redistricting scheme as a textbook violation of the landmark civil rights law.”

The plaintiffs in the case Thursday released a joint statement through their attorneys that said the Alabama lawmakers had tried to “shirk their responsibility to ensure communities of color are given an equal opportunity to elect their preferred candidates.”

“Today, the Supreme Court reminded them of that responsibility by affirming the district court’s order that a new map be drawn that complies with federal law – one that recognizes the diversity in our state rather than erasing it,” the statement said. “This fight was won through generations of Black leaders who refused to be silent, and while much work is left, today we can move forward with these reaffirmed protections civil rights leaders fought and died for.”

Alabama has had a single majority-minority congressional district, taking in most of the western Black Belt in the state, since 1992. It is represented by U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Birmingham, the only Democrat in Alabama’s seven-member U.S. House delegation.

Plaintiffs argued that a House delegation that was 14% Black meant Black Alabamians, who make up 26.8% of the state population, were underrepresented.

During the lower court hearing, plaintiffs proposed creating two new congressional districts that would be 41% to 50% Black.

Benard Simelton, the president of the Alabama State Conference of the NAACP, said in an interview Thursday that the decision was the biggest since 2013’s Shelby County v. Holder. That ruling struck down Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which required the U.S. Department of Justice to review changes to voting laws in states with a history of discrimination, like Alabama.

“For Black voters, this means that your voice is still important,” he said. “And that if we continue to work to get more voters out, we will be able to elect more people to positions of our choice.”

In a dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that the question was whether the state had to draw districts proportional to the Black share of the population.

“Section 2 demands no such thing, and, if it did, the Constitution would not permit it,” he wrote.

Roberts wrote that the court was only reaffirming prior precedents.

“The concern that Section 2 may impermissibly elevate race in the allocation of political power within the States is, of course, not new,” Roberts wrote. “Our opinion today does not diminish or disregard these concerns. It simply holds that a faithful application of our precedents and a fair reading of the record before us do not bear them out here.”

Ralph Chapoco and Alander Rocha contributed to this report. Updated at 11:08 a.m. with comments from Gov. Kay Ivey’s office and plaintiffs in the case, and to correct spelling of Abha Khanna’s name; at 12:05 p.m. with comment from the Alabama attorney general’s office and at 1:11 p.m. with comments from Bernard Simelton of the NAACP; and at 11:43 a.m. Friday to correct percentage of Black residents in Alabama from 26% to 26.8% and the proposed congressional district make up by plaintiffs from 41% to 45% to 41% to 50%.