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Bolstering Voting Rights Act, Supreme Court finds violation in Alabama

The court's liberal minority was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Brett Kavanaugh in the lead opinion.

WASHINGTON (CN) — Alabama adopted a congressional map that diluted the votes of Black residents, the Supreme Court ruled Thursday, siding with civil rights groups.

Though many predicted the conservative majority would take the opportunity to deal a death blow to the landmark Voting Rights Act, the liberal justices were joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Brett Kavanaugh to uphold those protections. 

The case hinged specifically on a provision of the law called Section 2, which directly targets voting practices that deny voters the right to vote based on race. This includes the dilution of votes by the drawing of congressional maps. 

“The concern that §2 may impermissibly elevate race in the allocation of political power within the States is, of course, not new,” Roberts wrote for the 5-4 majority. “Our opinion today does not diminish or disregard these concerns. It simply holds that a faithful application of our precedents and a fair reading of the record before us do not bear them out here.” 

President Joe Biden weighed in on the court's ruling, emphasizing the importance of allowing voters to pick their elected officials. Biden stopped short, however, of praising the ruling outright.

"Today’s decision confirms the basic principle that voting practices should not discriminate on account of race, but our work is not done," Biden said in a statement. "Vice President Harris and I will continue to fight to pass both the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to restore and strengthen the Voting Rights Act, and the Freedom to Vote Act to ensure fair Congressional maps and that all Americans have their voices heard."

In the map that Alabama lawmakers adopted to address 2020 census results, Black voters wound up with a majority in only 1 out of 7 congressional districts despite representing 27% of the state’s voting-age population. 

The splitting of Alabama’s so-called Black Belt — a region named for its fertile black soil and home to a majority of residents who are descendants of enslaved individuals — ultimately drew three challenges. In the one that reached the justices, the Alabama State Conference of the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union alleged that the map that was passed to prevent Black voters from gaining equal access to the political process.

A three-judge panel quickly ordered the Alabama Legislature to add an additional Black-majority district to its map, finding that their first effort violated the Voting Rights Act. As lawmakers fought to prevent a redraw, however, the justices agreed to pause the lower court ruling while it considered the case. 

The high court's ruling Thursday upholds the district court's ruling, saying Alabama should be blocked from using its proposed maps because they violated Section 2.

“The Court faithfully applied our precedents and correctly determined that, under existing law, HB1 violated §2,” Roberts wrote.

Roberts said the case was an attempt to reshape Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. 

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

Alabama’s effort to reshape Section 2 involves a “race-neutral benchmark” created by using computer-generated maps with millions of possible districting options. The mapmaker would then use the average number of majority-minority districts to get the benchmark. 

Roberts said this approach was wrong in practice and theory. 

“We accordingly decline to recast our §2 case law as Alabama requests,” Roberts wrote. 

The majority also rejected claims that Section 2 was unconstitutional under the 15th Amendment in redistricting cases. 

Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the leading dissent, an opinion that Justices Neil Gorsuch, Amy Coney Barrett and Samuel Alito each joined in different parts. Thomas said the majority’s ruling was disastrous for voting rights. 

“These cases ‘are yet another installment in the ‘disastrous misadventure’ of this Court’s voting rights jurisprudence,’” Thomas wrote. “What distinguishes them is the uncommon clarity with which they lay bare the gulf between our ‘color-blind’ Constitution, and ‘the consciously segregated districting system currently being constructed in the name of the Voting Rights Act.’” 

The Bush appointee said the Constitution would not require Alabama to redraw its congressional districts to give Black voters more power so the court should not have interpreted Section 2 to do so either. 

“The question presented is whether §2 of the Act, as amended, requires the State of Alabama to intentionally redraw its longstanding congressional districts so that black voters can control a number of seats roughly proportional to the black share of the State’s population,” Thomas wrote.  “Section 2 demands no such thing, and, if it did, the Constitution would not permit it.” 

Voting rights advocates lauded the majority for upholding precedent protecting the landmark law. 

“Alabama’s current congressional map systematically dilutes the voting power of Black Alabamians, in clear violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act,” Abha Khanna, an attorney with Elias Law Group representing voting rights advocates in the case, said in a statement. “Thankfully, the Court today identified Alabama’s redistricting scheme as a textbook violation of the landmark civil rights law.” 

Alabama officials suggested that they would continue to fight for the maps.

"Although the majority’s decision is disappointing, this case is not over," said Secretary of State Wes Allen, who defended the maps before the court.

During oral arguments in October, the justices appeared skeptical of an all-out annihilation of Section 2, leaning more toward a rewriting of their own precedent. Some of the conservative justices questioned rewriting Thornbury v. Gingles — which lays out preconditions for courts to use when determining if racial gerrymandering. 

Follow @KelseyReichmann
Categories / Appeals, Civil Rights, Law

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