Supreme Court rejects Alabama's race-neutral redistricting map in favor of plaintiffs seeking racially gerrymandered districts

June 9, 2023
Ben Marquis

A 5-4 majority of the U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday struck down Alabama's congressional redistricting map as being in violation of a provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, according to the Daily Caller.

The majority -- comprised of Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Brett Kavanaugh, Elena Kagen, Sonia Sotomayor, and Ketanji Jackson Brown -- sided with plaintiffs who had argued that the newly adopted district map unfairly diluted the vote of Alabama's black citizens by only having one majority-black district out of seven total districts.

Given that black citizens comprise approximately two-sevenths of the state's population, the court's majority agreed with the plaintiffs' demand to throw out the legislature's map, which was purposefully drawn in a race-neutral fashion, and replace it with one drawn in a race-conscious fashion that would result in two majority-black congressional districts.

Interpreting the Voting Rights Act

At issue here is Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, codified as 52 U.S.C. Sec. 10301, which prohibits the "denial or abridgment of the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color" by way of certain "voting qualification(s) or prerequisite(s)."

The statute further states that a violation occurs if, "based on the totality of circumstances, it is shown that the political processes leading to nomination or election in the State or political subdivision are not equally open to participation by members of a class of citizens protected by subsection (a) in that its members have less opportunity than other members of the electorate to participate in the political process and to elect representatives of their choice."

That said, it also specifically provides "That nothing in this section establishes a right to have members of a protected class elected in numbers equal to their proportion in the population" -- a provision that appears to have been ignored by the plaintiffs and court majority, as that is the precise outcome of the majority decision, proportional representation of black Alabamians in Congress.

Roberts cites prior precedence to uphold lower court's ruling

SCOTUSblog reported that the redistricting map accepted by the Alabama legislature and signed into law by the governor in 2021 was challenged by multiple groups of plaintiffs under the Voting Rights Act and claims that the black vote was purposefully diluted.

A three-judge district court panel had sided with the plaintiffs and rejected that state's map, but the matter was appealed to the Supreme Court and, given the proximity to the 2022 midterm elections and the general reluctance to upend election-related laws and regulations in such a time frame, the Supreme Court placed a hold on the lower court's ruling and allowed the state's map to be used until a final decision was rendered.

That has now happened with the majority opinion authored by Chief Justice Roberts, which extensively cited the precedent set by a 1986 case known as Thornburg v. Gingles that established a three-part test for reviewing claims under Sec. 2 of the VRA and rejected arguments from the state that the precedent case had been wrongly decided.

"The concern that [the Voting Rights Act] may impermissibly elevate race in the allocation of political power within the States is, of course, not new," Roberts wrote, according to the Daily Caller. "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."

Thomas dissents

Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a dissenting opinion that was joined, at least in part, by Justices Samuel Alito, Amy Coney Barrett, and Neil Gorsuch, that sharply criticized the majority's decision that effectively focused too much on race with regard and, ironically, undermined the same VRA that it sought to uphold.

The case represented "yet another installment in the ‘disastrous misadventure’ of this Court’s voting rights jurisprudence," Thomas wrote, in that "The question presented is whether [Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act], as amended, requires the State of Alabama to intentionally redraw its longstanding congressional districts so that black voters can control a number of seats roughly proportional to the black share of the State’s population.

"Section 2 demands no such thing, and, if it did, the Constitution would not permit it," he added.

Thomas went on to explain at length how the efforts to redraw Alabama's map in a purposeful manner to achieve two majority-black districts involved a blatant display of racial gerrymandering to link the predominately black sections of the state's three major urban centers -- Birmingham, Mobile, and Montgomery -- with the rural "black belt" that, if the races were reversed, would be immediately rejected as racially discriminatory and unconstitutional.

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