Supreme Court Backs Extra Black Alabama District in GOP Loss

The US Supreme Court gave an unexpected boost to the Voting Rights Act, rejecting a Republican-drawn congressional map in Alabama and upholding a decision that requires a second majority Black district.

(Bloomberg) — The US Supreme Court gave an unexpected boost to the Voting Rights Act, rejecting a Republican-drawn congressional map in Alabama and upholding a decision that requires a second majority Black district.

The 5-4 decision marks a major turn for a court that twice in the last decade has significantly cut back the landmark law, enacted in 1965 to protect minority rights at the polls. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Brett Kavanaugh joined the three liberal justices in the majority.

Democrats and civil rights activists said the Voting Rights Act’s Section 2 requires a second heavily Black district in a state with seven US congressional seats and a 27% Black population. Alabama’s Republican leaders said the law doesn’t require racial proportionality and gives lawmakers broad leeway to craft districts using racially neutral criteria.

Writing for the court, Roberts said Alabama’s approach couldn’t be squared with a 1986 Supreme Court precedent that sets out the test for redistricting lawsuits under the Voting Rights Act.

“The heart of these cases is not about the law as it exists,” Roberts wrote. “It is about Alabama’s attempt to remake our Section 2 jurisprudence anew.”

Read More: Racial Gerrymandering Meets Voting Rights in Supreme Court Clash

Given the state’s voting patterns, a second heavily Black district almost certainly will give Alabama a second Democratic representative. The state now has six Republicans and one Democrat in the House.

The decision could affect pending litigation over congressional maps in Texas, Louisiana and Georgia, as well as similar fights over state and local voting districts. 

Kavanaugh Role

The Supreme Court put the lower court ruling on hold last year, ensuring the Republican-drawn map would be used for the 2022 election. Kavanaugh was in the majority then, saying it was too close to election to require a new map.

In Thursday’s ruling, Kavanaugh said Alabama was effectively seeking to overturn the 1986 ruling, known as Thornburg v. Gingles. 

“Unlike with constitutional precedents, Congress and the President may enact new legislation to alter statutory precedents such as Gingles,” Kavanaugh wrote. “In the past 37 years, however, Congress and the president have not disturbed Gingles, even as they have made other changes to the Voting Rights Act.

Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Amy Coney Barrett and Neil Gorsuch dissented. Thomas said the Voting Rights Act doesn’t require states to let Black voters control a proportional number of legislative seats. 

“The majority holds, in substance, that race belongs in virtually every redistricting,” Thomas wrote.

‘Crucial Win’

Section 2 outlaws election rules that discriminate on the basis of race. The Supreme Court has said in the past the law bars states from drawing voting lines in a way that dilutes the power of racial minorities.

Two sets of challengers said the GOP-drawn maps dilute minority strength in part by dispersing voters in so-called Black Belt, a largely rural area originally named for the color of its fertile soil. 

Civil rights groups and the Biden administration hailed the ruling.

“This decision is a crucial win against the continued onslaught of attacks on voting rights,” said Deuel Ross, a lawyer with the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund. Ross argued the case in October on behalf of one group of voters.

“Today’s decision rejects efforts to further erode fundamental voting rights protections, and preserves the principle that in the United States, all eligible voters must be able to exercise their constitutional right to vote free from discrimination based on their race,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a statement.

A spokesman for Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

The case is Allen v. Milligan, 21-1086.

(Updates with opinion excerpts, reaction starting in fifth paragraph.)

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