Supreme Court upholds landmark suffrage law, strikes down Alabama congressional card

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Thursday struck down Republican-drawn congressional districts in Alabama that civil rights activists said discriminated against black voters in a surprise reaffirmation of the landmark voting rights law.

The court, in a 5-4 vote, ruled against Alabama, meaning the map of the seven congressional districts, which heavily favors Republicans, will now be redrawn. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Brett Kavanaugh, both conservatives, joined the court’s three liberals in the majority.

In doing so, the court — which has a 6-3 conservative majority — rejected state efforts to make it harder to address concerns raised by civil rights advocates that the power of black voters in states like Alabama is diluted by dividing voters into precincts where white voters dominate.

Voters walk out of a polling station at the National Guard military base during the presidential primary in Camden, Alabama (Joshua Lott/AFP via Getty Images File)

Voters walk out of a polling station at the National Guard military base during the presidential primary in Camden, Alabama (Joshua Lott/AFP via Getty Images File)

In the ruling, Roberts, writing for the majority, said a lower court correctly found the Congressional card violated voting rights law.

In 2013, Roberts drafted a ruling that gutted a separate and important provision of the Voting Rights Act and has long argued that various government efforts to address historic racial discrimination are problematic and can make matters worse.

He wrote in Thursday’s decision that there are genuine concerns that the Voting Rights Act “may unacceptably elevate race in the allocation of political power” and that Alabama’s decision “would diminish nor neglect these concerns”.

Instead, the court “simply considers that a faithful application of our precedents and a fair reading of the record before us does not confirm them here,” Roberts added.

As such, the court left future challenges to the law open, with Kavanaugh writing in a separate opinion that his vote did not rule out challenges to Section 2 on the basis of there being a time when the he authorization by the law of 1965 to take race into account in redistricting is no longer justified.

Civil rights groups and their supporters, including President Joe Biden, reveled in a largely unexpected victory.

“Today’s decision affirms the basic principle that voting practices should not discriminate on the basis of race, but our work is not done,” Biden said in a statement. He renewed his calls for Congress to enact new suffrage legislation.

NAACP President Derrick Johnson applauded the Supreme Court for pushing back against what he called an effort to suppress black voting.

“This decision is a victory for black America and a triumph for our democracy,” he said. But, he added, “this fight is far from over.”

Despite the ruling, Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall has vowed to continue the battle on state cards.

“While the majority decision is disappointing, this case is not over,” he said in a brief statement.

The two consolidated cases arose out of litigation over the new congressional district map that was drawn by the Republican-controlled Alabama Legislature after the 2020 census. The challengers, including individual voters and the Alabama State Conference of the NAACP, said the card violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act by discriminating against black voters.

The new map created one in seven districts in the state in which black voters could likely elect a candidate of their choice. The challengers say the state, whose population is more than a quarter black, should have two such districts and have provided evidence that such a district could be drawn.

A lower court agreed in a ruling last January, saying that under Supreme Court precedent the plaintiffs had shown that Alabama’s black population was both large enough and compact enough that there have a majority black second district. The court ordered a new map drawn, but Republican State Attorney General Steve Marshall turned to the Supreme Court, which stayed litigation and agreed to hear the case.

Four conservative justices, led by Justice Clarence Thomas, dissented in Thursday’s ruling.

Thomas wrote that his preferred outcome “would not require the federal judiciary to decide the correct racial distribution of seats in Alabama’s Congress.”

He added that under the approach taken by the lower court, Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act “is no more than a racial right to approximately proportionate control of office. electives… wherever different racial groups systematically prefer different candidates”.

Last year, the Supreme Court was split 5-4 in allowing the Republican-drawn map to be used in the November election, with Roberts joining the court’s three liberal dissenters. Kavanaugh then indicated that his vote to allow the card to be used was based on the lower court ruling made too close to the election.

Republicans won six of seven seats in the election, while Democrats won the majority-black district. With black voters more likely to vote for Democrats, Democrats might have gotten an extra seat had a new map passed.

The Alabama case was one of many in which Supreme Court rulings may have helped Republicans secure their frail majority in the House of Representatives.

Alabama argued that the lower court placed too much emphasis on race to reach its conclusions. Marshall said in court papers that the fact that the challengers were able to show using computer-generated maps that it was possible to draw a majority black second district was not sufficient evidence that the actions of the state were discriminatory. He cited other traditional “racial-neutral” map-drawing 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 School of Law, said the decision was “more important … for the future than just a reaffirmation of the status quo.”

This is because the court has effectively approved the use of computer generated maps in difficult districts. New technology makes it easier to find cards that could potentially be challenged under voting rights law, he added.

The Supreme Court has in two cases over the past decade weakened the Suffrage Act, starting in 2013 when it gutted a key provision of the law that allowed federal oversight of election law changes. in some states. In a 2021 ruling from Arizona, the court made it harder to file cases under Section 2.

The case is one of three the court is hearing in the current legislature in which conservative lawyers are pushing what they call right-wing favored race-neutral arguments as a way to address racial discrimination. . Otherwise, the court could end affirmative action in 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 during its current term, with the court set to rule on a Republican effort to limit the ability of state courts to enforce state constitutional provisions in federal elections. The move, expected before the end of this month, could make it easier for Republican legislatures to restrict voting rights.

CORRECTION (June 8, 2023, 1:41 PM ET): A previous version of this article incorrectly listed the year of a lower court ruling. It was January 2022, not last January.

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