WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court Thursday released a surprise 5-4 verdict In favor of black voters in a congressional redistricting case from Alabama, two conservative justices joined with liberals in rejecting a Republican-led effort to weaken a key voting rights law..
Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Brett Kavanagh joined the court’s liberal side in upholding a lower court ruling that found Alabama’s congressional map violated the Voting Rights Act. Seven counties in the state where more than one in four citizens are black are majority black. The state will have to draw a new map for next year’s elections.
The decision was widely anticipated for its potential impact on control of the closely divided US House of Representatives. Because of the ruling, new maps could emerge in Alabama and Louisiana that would allow Democratic-leaning black voters to choose their preferred candidates in two more congressional districts.
The fallout from the court’s allowing the challenged Alabama map to be used for the 2022 election was unexpected, and in arguments last October the justices appeared poised to make it harder to redistrict racially discriminatory plans under the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The chief justice himself suggested last year that he was open to changes in the way courts weigh discrimination claims under a section of the law called Section 2 of the Act. But on Thursday, Roberts wrote that the court would decline to “recast our Article 2 case law as requested by Alabama.”
Roberts was part of a conservative high court majority in earlier cases that made it difficult for racial minorities to use the Voting Rights Act in ideologically divided rulings in 2013. And 2021.
Four other conservative justices dissented on Thursday. Justice Clarence Thomas wrote, “Alabama is forced to deliberately redraw its longstanding congressional districts so that black voters can control more seats roughly proportional to the black share of the state’s population. Section 2 requires no such thing, and if it did, the Constitution would not permit it.”
The Biden administration sided with black voters in Alabama.
Attorney General Merrick Garland praised the ruling: “Today’s decision rejects efforts to further erode basic voting rights protections, and protects the principle that in the United States, all eligible voters can exercise their constitutional right without discrimination. Race.”
Evan Milligan, a black voter and the lead plaintiff in the case, called the ruling a victory for democracy and people of color.
“We are grateful that the Supreme Court confirmed what we know to be true: everyone deserves a vote and a voice heard. Today is a victory for democracy and freedom not just in Alabama, but across America,” Milligan said.
Alabama Republican Party Chairman John Wall said in a statement that state lawmakers will comply with the ruling. “Regardless of our disagreement with the court’s ruling, we believe the Alabama Legislature will redraw district lines to ensure that the people of Alabama are represented by members who share their beliefs, while following the requirements of applicable law,” Wall said.
But the state’s Republican Attorney General, Steve Marshall, said he expects to continue to defend the challenged map in federal court, including through a full trial. “While the majority’s decision is disappointing, this case is far from over,” Marshall said in a statement.
Civil rights attorney Deul Rose, who argued the case in the Supreme Court, said the justices upheld the lower court’s opinion in the case. A full trial “does not appear to be a good use of Alabama’s time, resources, or public money to continue to litigate their case.”
The lawsuit challenges Alabama’s seven-district congressional map, which includes a district with a majority large enough that black voters have the power to elect the candidate of their choice. Challengers said one district was not enough, pointing out that Alabama’s population as a whole is more than 25% black.
The three-judge court, two of whom were appointed by former President Donald Trump, had little trouble ruling that the plan may have violated the Voting Rights Act by diluting the vote of black Alabamians. That “potential” violation prompted a three-judge panel to issue a preliminary injunction, which ordered a new map to be drawn.
But the government quickly appealed to the Supreme Court, where five conservative justices blocked the lower court ruling from going forward. At the same time, the court decided to hear the Alabama case.
Louisiana’s congressional map was separately identified as discriminatory by a lower court. That map too has been in effect since last year and now needs to be redrawn.
Its pending cases against congressional districts in Georgia and Texas could also be affected, the National Redistricting Foundation said in a statement.
Separately, the Supreme Court will hear an appeal of South Carolina’s lower court ruling in the fall. That case could lead to a redrawn map in South Carolina, where six U.S. House members are Republicans and one is a Democrat.
There is also partisan politics in the Alabama case. Republicans, who dominate elected office in Alabama, oppose creating a second district with a Democratic black majority, or close to one, that could send another Democrat to Congress.
The justices found that Alabama concentrated black voters in one district while spreading them among others to make it more difficult for them to choose more than one candidate of their choice.
Alabama’s black population is large enough and geographically compact enough to form a second district, the justices found.
Alabama, which denied discrimination, argued that the lower court ruling would have forced voters to sort by race, and insisted it was taking a “race neutral” approach to redistricting.
In arguments in October, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson scoffed at the idea that race could not be part of the equation. Jackson, the first black woman on the court, said the constitutional amendments passed after the Civil War and the Voting Rights Act a century later were intended to do the same, making black Americans “equal to white citizens.”
Associated Press writer Kim Chandler contributed to this report from Montgomery, Alabama.