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Supreme Court blocks redraw of GOP-friendly congressional map in Alabama

In a blow to voting rights advocates, the justices blocked a lower court order that would have forced the state to redraw its congressional maps to be more friendly to Black voters.

WASHINGTON (CN) — In a 5-4 vote Monday evening, the Supreme Court reinstated a new Republican-friendly congressional map in Alabama that a lower court blocked for violating the Voting Rights Act and diluting the influence of Black voters.  

Chief Justice John Roberts — who wrote his own opinion — joined the three liberals in dissent. Justice Elena Kagan also wrote a dissent joined by Justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor. Justice Brett Kavanaugh — joined by Justice Samuel Alito — wrote a concurring opinion. 

“Accepting Alabama’s contentions would rewrite decades of this Court’s precedent about Section 2 of the VRA [Voting Rights Act],” Kagan wrote. 

The Barack Obama appointee continued, “Staying its decision forced Black Alabamians to suffer what under that law is clear vote dilution.” 

Kagan notes that Black Alabamians only have influence over 14% of congressional seats in the state despite making up 27% of the state’s population. She claims Alabama is putting a new requirement on the VRA without precedent and criticizes the majority for making this decision on the emergency docket

“There may — or may not — be a basis for revising our VRA precedent in light of the modern districting technology that Alabama’s application highlights,” Kagan wrote. “But such a change can properly happen only after full briefing and argument — not based on the scanty review this Court gives matters on its shadow docket.” 

Last month, Alabama asked the Supreme Court for an injunction to block a lower court’s ruling throwing out its new congressional map. 

Following a redraw based on the 2020 census, the Alabama State Conference of the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties challenged the new map, claiming it violated the Constitution's equal protection clause and the Voting Rights Act. A three-judge panel agreed with the NAACP and the ACLU, throwing out the GOP-friendly map and forcing the state to redraw the districts to give Black voters more power in elections. The court’s order would force the state to add another district where Black majorities hold sway, likely giving Democrats another seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in November.  

Roberts — whose dissent was much shorter than Kagan’s — explained his vote by saying the district court properly applied existing law in an “extensive” opinion that he found no errors in. 

“The governing standard for vote dilution claims under section 2 of the Voting Rights Act is set forth in Thornburg v. Gingles…which requires ‘the minority group . . . to demonstrate that it is sufficiently large and geographically compact to constitute a majority in a single-member district,’” the George W. Bush appointee wrote. “The District Court reviewed the submissions of the plaintiffs’ experts and explained at length the factbound bases for its conclusion that the plaintiffs had made that showing.” 

However, Roberts said Gingles has given rise to considerable disagreement and uncertainty with vote dilution claims. While he suggested the court should take up the matter next term, Roberts said he still wouldn’t grant a stay in this case and the current understanding of the precedent should be used in the upcoming election. 

“As noted, the analysis below seems correct as Gingles is presently applied, and in my view the District Court’s analysis should therefore control the upcoming election,” Roberts wrote. “The practical effect of this approach would be that the 2022 election would take place in accord with the judgment of the District Court, but subsequent elections would be governed by this Court’s decision on review.” 

Kavanaugh’s opinion took issue with Kagan’s contention that the court’s order would put a new requirement on the VRA. 

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“The stay order does not make or signal any change to voting rights law,” the Donald Trump appointee wrote. “The stay order is not a ruling on the merits, but instead simply stays the District Court’s injunction pending a ruling on the merits.” 

He then took aim at Kagan’s use of the phrase “shadow docket” – commonly used to describe the emergency docket which this case resides – calling it “catchy but worn-out rhetoric.” 

“The stay will allow this Court to decide the merits in an orderly fashion — after full briefing, oral argument, and our usual extensive internal deliberations — and ensure that we do not have to decide the merits on the emergency docket,” Kavanaugh wrote. “To reiterate: The Court’s stay order is not a decision on the merits.”

Kagan’s dissent voiced the concerns of many experts who have criticized the court for making major decisions on its emergency docket. 

“Today’s decision is one more in a disconcertingly long line of cases in which this Court uses its shadow docket to signal or make changes in the law, without anything approaching full briefing and argument,” Kagan wrote. 

Kavanaugh cited the complicated nature of elections for granting the staying, arguing that some candidates might not know what district they need to file for or which district they live in. 

“Running elections statewide is extraordinarily complicated and difficult,” Kavanaugh wrote. “Those elections require enormous advance preparations by state and local officials, and pose significant logistical challenges. The District Court’s order would require heroic efforts by those state and local authorities in the next few weeks — and even heroic efforts likely would not be enough to avoid chaos and confusion.” 

Petitioning the high court, Alabama said the district court’s order would force it to do a “race-based redraw of Alabama’s race-neutral map.” 

“The court-ordered redraw marks a radical change from decades of Alabama’s congressional plans,” Steve Marshall, Alabama’s attorney general, said in the state’s brief. “It will result in a map that can be drawn only by placing race first above race-neutral districting criteria, sorting and splitting voters across the state on the basis of race alone.”

The state further claimed that adding another majority-Black district would segregate Alabamians. 

“The United States Constitution cannot tolerate such a perversion of the VRA,” Marshall wrote. 

After the state filed its petition, the court requested that the NAACP and ACLU offer a response.

The NAACP and ACLU claim Alabama distorted the court’s order in its petition. While the state claims the court told Alabama to prioritize race over race-neutral redistricting principles and sort voters by race alone, the groups say that’s not the case. 

“In an effort to achieve an ‘attention-grabbing’ lede, the stay request fails to provide this court with an accurate picture,” Deuel Ross, an attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, wrote in the group’s reply brief. “It does not faithfully describe the record. It ignores and misstates the findings of fact and credibility determinations. And it misrepresents the panel’s conclusions of law.” 

The high court held in 2019 that federal courts should not police partisan gerrymandering, but this case marks the first time the justices have weighed in on racial gerrymandering. 

The 2021 redistricting cycle will be the first time since 1965 that states with extensive histories of racial discrimination in voting had to get congressional maps approved by a federal court. 

In a statement after the ruling, Ross promised to keep fighting the current map. 

“The Supreme Court’s decision to intervene is disheartening, but the facts are clear: Alabama’s current congressional map violates the Voting Rights Act,” Ross said. “The litigation will continue, and we are confident that Black Alabamians will eventually have the congressional map they deserve — one that fairly represents all voters.”

Tish Gotell Faulks, legal director at the ACLU of Alabama, echoed that sentiment. 

“The people of Alabama shouldn’t have to vote on a map in 2022 that we know is unfair, but we look forward to vindicating our claims at trial as the case continues in federal court,” Faulks said in a statement. 

Follow @KelseyReichmann
Categories / Appeals, Civil Rights, Government, Politics

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