(CN) - Invalidating Alabama's 2010 redistricting plans, the Supreme Court sided 5-4 on Wednesday with claims that lawmakers "packed" black voters into certain districts to dilute their impact on elections.
Alabama insisted that it tried to balance the need to reduce population deviation among districts with the desire to help black voters maintain their sway. This led the state to redraw each majority black district to maintain the same percentage of black population as it had under the prior district map, despite demographic changes shown in the 2010 census.
The plaintiffs - including the Alabama Legislative Black Caucus - claimed that Alabama packed supermajorities of black voters into districts that already had black majorities, which kept them from impacting elections across several districts.
Their case went to the Supreme Court after a thee-judge U.S. District Court panel found that "Gov. Wallace and segregation are long gone."
"Alabama has virtually eliminated any racial gap in voter registration or participation," the court held
In a 5-4 reversal Wednesday, the Supreme Court said it may be illegal to have too many black people clustered in one district.
"The requirement that districts have approximately equal populations is a background rule against which redistricting takes place," Justice Steven Breyer wrote for the majority. "It is not a factor to be treated like other nonracial factors when a court determines whether race predominated over other, 'traditional' factors in the drawing of district boundaries."
Justices Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan joined the ruling.
"Had the District Court not taken a contrary view of the law, its 'predominance' conclusions, including those concerning the four districts that the Conference specifically challenged, might well have been different," Breyer wrote.
The Voting Rights Act "does not require maintaining the same population percentages in majority-minority districts as in the prior plan," the opinion continues. "Rather, §5 is satisfied if minority voters retain the ability to elect their preferred candidates," Breyer added.
Chief Justice John Roberts joined a dissent by Justice Anton Scalia, as did Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito.
"Frankly, I do not know what to make of appellants' arguments," Scalia wrote. "They are pleaded with such opacity that, squinting hard enough, one can find them to contain just about anything."
The dissent boils down the majority's holding as essentially ordering the lower court to "go back and squint harder" to try and interpret plaintiffs' arguments.
"We should not reward the practice of litigation by obfuscation, especially when we are dealing with a well-established legal claim that numerous plaintiffs have successfully brought in the past," Scalia said.
Thomas also wrote his own dissent, stating that the Supreme Court's jurisprudence on the Voting Rights Act is riddled with error, a problem that this ruling only exacerbates.
"We have somehow arrived at a place where the parties agree that Alabama's legislative districts should be fine-tuned to achieve some 'optimal' result with respect to black voting power; the only disagreement is about what percentage of blacks should be placed in those optimized districts. This is nothing more than a fight over the 'best' racial quota," Thomas said (emphasis in original).