By John Kruzel and Andrew Chung
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The U.S. Supreme Court’s conservative majority on Wednesday appeared poised to revive a Republican-drawn electoral map in South Carolina that was blocked by a lower court for racial bias after 30,000 Black residents were moved out of a congressional district.
During arguments in a case that could help decide control of the U.S. House of Representatives in the 2024 elections, the conservative justices signaled sympathy toward arguments made by South Carolina officials defending the changes in composition of the district as driven by partisan benefit for Republicans.
At issue was a map adopted last year by the Republican-led state legislature that redrew the boundaries of one of South Carolina’s seven U.S. House of Representatives districts – one that includes parts of Charleston along the Atlantic coast.
A federal three-judge panel in January ruled that the map sorted voters along racial lines and diminished the clout of Black voters in violation of the U.S. Constitution’s 14th and 15th Amendments, which guarantee equal protection under the law and prohibit race-based voting discrimination.
Black voters tend to favor Democratic candidates.
A practice called gerrymandering involves the manipulation of electoral district boundaries to marginalize a certain set of voters and increase the influence of others. In this case, the state legislature was accused of racial gerrymandering to reduce the influence of Black voters in South Carolina’s 1st congressional district.
Conservative Chief Justice John Roberts expressed skepticism that the plaintiffs – Black voters who challenged the map – met their burden in the case, noting that they challenged the it “without any direct evidence, with no alternative map, with no odd-shape districts which we often get in gerrymandering cases.”
Roberts added, “Have we ever had a case before where all it is is circumstantial evidence?”
The Republican legislators and other state officials who appealed the lower court’s ruling argued that the map was designed to secure partisan advantages, a practice that the Supreme Court in 2019 decided was not reviewable by federal courts – unlike racial gerrymandering, which remains illegal.
Conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch wondered whether the challengers had overcome the presumption of good faith courts must give legislatures.
“Here, there’s no evidence that the legislature could have achieved its partisan tilt – which everyone says is permissible – in any other way,” Gorsuch said.
The new map increased the district’s share of white voters while reducing its share of Black voters, which the lower court referred to as “bleaching.” The Republicans faulted those judges for finding that the district’s composition was motivated primarily by race rather than Republican interests.
Leah Aden, a lawyer with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund who argued on behalf of challengers to the map, said the evidentiary record “reflects that there was a racial target, it reflects that there was a significant sorting of Black people, it reflects unrebutted expert evidence of race rather than party explaining the assignment of voters.”
‘I DON’T BELIEVE THAT’
The court’s liberal justices questioned the arguments made to defend the map.
“Your defense was, ‘We didn’t look at the racial data for this purpose.’ And what the (lower) court said was, ‘I don’t believe that,'” liberal Justice Elena Kagan told a lawyer arguing for South Carolina.
The eventual ruling by the Supreme Court, which has a 6-3 conservative majority, may determine whether Democrats have a realistic shot to win the 1st district, currently represented by Republican Nancy Mace.
The map shifted 30,000 Black residents into the neighboring 6th congressional district that stretches 125 miles (200 km) inland from Charleston. These voters were unlawfully “exiled,” the three-judge panel wrote. The 6th district has been held for three decades by Democrat Jim Clyburn, one of the most prominent Black members of Congress. Clyburn’s is the only one of South Carolina’s House districts held by a Democrat.
Legislative districts across the United States are redrawn to reflect population changes documented in the nationwide census conducted every decade.
With the district’s previous boundaries in place, Mace only narrowly defeated an incumbent Democrat in 2020 – by just over 1 percentage point, or 5,400 votes. With the redistricting, Mace won re-election in 2022 by 14 percentage points.
The parties in the case have asked the Supreme Court to decide the case by the end of the year to enable the map to be finalized ahead of the Nov. 5, 2024, congressional elections.
Similar legal battles over electoral maps in other states could influence which party ends up controlling the House. The Supreme Court in June ruled against Alabama Republicans in one such case, ordering that state to devise a second majority-Black U.S. House district in a ruling that gave a boost to Democrats. Republicans hold a slim 221-212 House margin.
(Reporting by John Kruzel; Editing by Will Dunham)