Supreme Court's delay prompts district court to allow South Carolina to hold elections with congressional map it ruled unconstitutional

 March 31, 2024

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in October 2023 on an appeal of a district court panel's ruling that a South Carolina congressional district was unconstitutional because it had racially gerrymandered during the 2021 redistricting process, and it was widely presumed that the high court would render a swift decision on the matter.

However, given that the Supreme Court has not yet issued its ruling, and with June's primary elections in the Palmetto State fast approaching, the district court panel revised its prior ruling to allow the 2024 elections to proceed using the 2021 district map that it ruled was unconstitutional, Politico reported.

The panel had previously prohibited any elections from being conducted in South Carolina's District 1 until the Supreme Court had ruled and a "remedial" map was created and approved, if necessary.

Redrawn district map ruled unconstitutional, future elections enjoined

At issue here is the case of Alexander v. South Carolina State Conference of the NAACP, in which South Carolina's Republican-led legislature asked the Supreme Court to determine whether a district court panel had erred in multiple ways in its ruling that the state's newly redrawn District 1 was unconstitutional because it was the result of racial gerrymandering.

According to SCOTUSblog's analysis of the oral arguments in October, the legislature shifted roughly two-thirds of Charleston County's predominantly Democratic black voters from District 1, represented by Republican Nancy Mace, to neighboring District 6, represented by Democrat Jim Clyburn, in exchange for shifting several predominantly Republican areas from District 6 over to District 1.

In practical effect, the redistricting made both districts more solidly partisan, which was the stated political goal of the legislature, but the challengers accused the legislature of being racially motivated. The district court panel agreed, as it ruled the new map unconstitutional and prohibited future elections until the court could approve a newly redrawn map -- a ruling that was later modified to include a Supreme Court ruling after the legislature filed its appeal.

Incorrect assumption that Supreme Court would act fast

SCOTUSblog noted at the time that, based on the comments and questions from the justices, it appeared likely that the conservative majority would ultimately side with the state and uphold the 2021 district map as constitutional.

Ironically enough, the outlet's analysis concluded, "But whatever the court does, it is likely to act quickly, to give the state enough time to prepare for the 2024 elections."

That conclusion turned out to be inaccurate, as the Supreme Court has yet to issue its ruling in the case, and Politico reported that with various election procedure deadlines rapidly approaching, including an April 27 deadline to mail out overseas absentee and military ballots ahead of the June 11 primary elections, the district court panel decided it could no longer wait for the Supreme Court's final ruling.

Panel stays its prior injunction, will allow elections to proceed with challenged map

In a five-page order on Thursday, the panel granted in part and denied in part a motion from the state to stay part of its prior order that enjoined future elections in District 1 until a "remedial plan" was in place -- a plan that is contingent upon how the higher court will ultimately rule.

With a subtle reference to the delayed action from the Supreme Court, the panel wrote, "The present circumstances make it plainly impractical for the Court to adopt a remedial plan for Congressional District No. 1 in advance of the military and overseas absentee ballot deadline of April 27, 2024 mandated under federal law and the party primaries scheduled for June 11, 2024."

"Having found that Congressional District No. 1 constitutes an unconstitutional racial gerrymander, the Court fully recognizes that 'it would be the unusual case in which a court would be justified in not taking appropriate action to insure that no further elections are conducted under an invalid plan,'" the order continued. "But with the primary election procedures rapidly approaching, the appeal before the Supreme Court still pending, and no remedial plan in place, the ideal must bend to the practical."

As such, the panel begrudgingly agreed to "modify its injunction to preserve the status quo on appeal," which has the effect of allowing South Carolina to go ahead and use the District 1 map that was previously ruled unconstitutional for the primary and general elections in the 2024 cycle.

It is unclear, however, if the panel's order might be modified once again if, by chance, the Supreme Court's ruling is handed down soon with sufficient time for the required remedial plan to be drawn up and approved and for any necessary changes to the ballots to be made before the deadlines.

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