Supreme Court reverses order requiring Alabama to draw a new district map favorable to Black voters

February 9, 2022

A divided Supreme Court on Monday, February 7, restored an Alabama congressional map that creates only one district favorable to a Black candidate, and put on hold a lower court’s order that said a second district was necessary to comply with the Voting Rights Act, reports The Washington Post.

Over the objections of Chief Justice John Roberts and the court’s three liberals, its five most consistently conservative justices halted a decision made last month by three federal judges.

The panel threw out Alabama’s new congressional map, which included only one congressional district with a majority of Black voters even though they make up more than 25% of the state’s population.

The court’s ruling was a blow to voting rights advocates and Democrats after a series of redistricting wins over the past several weeks. It means the 2022 congressional elections in Alabama will take place under a map drawn by the state’s Republican leaders. But it also signals that the court’s more conservative majority is suspicious of a Voting Rights Act precedent that Alabama said requires legislatures to prioritize race over traditional redistricting techniques.

The majority—Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett—did not provide a reason for stopping the lower court’s decision, which is common when the Supreme Court considers an emergency petition. But Kavanaugh, joined by Alito, wrote separately to say the changes ordered by the lower court came too close to the qualifying period and primaries for the fall election and could create “chaos.”

He denied the court was making “new law” with the ruling—saying it would allow for an orderly examination of the challenge to Alabama’s redistricting. The state has seven congressional districts, six of them held by Republicans.

Dissenting Justice Elena Kagan, joined by Justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor, called the order “a disservice to Black Alabamians” who under Supreme Court precedent “have had their electoral power diminished — in violation of a law this Court once knew to buttress all of American democracy.”

The unanimous lower court panel noted that over the past decade, the number of White Alabamians had declined while the state’s Black population grew, and now accounts for 27% of the state’s overall population. That means the state’s map should contain two districts with either Black majorities or “in which Black voters otherwise have an opportunity” to elect representatives they favor, the panel said.

“Black voters have less opportunity than other Alabamians to elect candidates of their choice to Congress,” the panel wrote, finding challengers of the map were “substantially likely” to prevail on claims that the new maps violate the Voting Rights Act.

“We find that the plaintiffs will suffer an irreparable harm if they must vote in the 2022 congressional elections based on a redistricting plan that violates federal law,” the ruling stated.

The panel comprised Judge Stanley Marcus from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, nominated by President Bill Clinton; and District Court Judges Anna Manasco and Terry Moorer, both chosen by President Donald Trump.

The case is the first for current Supreme Court justices to consider how to apply the Voting Rights Act to racial gerrymandering. In 2019, the court said federal courts had no role in policing partisan gerrymandering.

Roberts acknowledged the court’s precedents “have engendered considerable disagreement and uncertainty regarding the nature and contours of a vote dilution claim.” But he said the panel had followed Supreme Court commands and produced “an extensive opinion with no apparent errors for our correction.” He would have allowed the lower court opinion to stand for the 2022 election and set the case for argument next term.

Research contact: @washingtonpost