Alabama discriminated against Black voters when it drew its seven congressional districts last year, the supreme court has ruled, a decision that is a major victory for the Voting Rights Act (VRA).
The decision was 5-4, with Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Brett Kavanaugh joining the court’s three liberal justices in the opinion. Writing for the majority of the court, Roberts noted the court was rejecting Alabama’s effort to get it to rewrite its longstanding interpretation of section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which outlaws voting practices that discriminate on the basis of race. The decision means that section 2 of the law, one of its last remaining powerful provisions, will remain intact.
“The heart of these cases is not about the law as it exists. It is about Alabama’s attempt to remake our §2 jurisprudence anew,” Roberts wrote. “We find Alabama’s new approach to §2 compelling neither in theory nor in practice. We accordingly decline to recast our §2 case law as Alabama requests.”
The decision was an unexpected outcome from Roberts and the court, both of whom have significantly hollowed out the Voting Rights Act in recent years. As a young lawyer in the justice department in the 1980s, Roberts argued for narrowing the interpretation of section 2. The court has rarely sided with voting rights litigants who allege voting discrimination.
The decision in the case, Allen v Milligan, means that Alabama will have to draw its congressional map to include a second majority-Black district. Black voters currently comprise a majority of the voting age population in just one district, despite making up a quarter of the state’s population.
“This decision is a crucial win against the continued onslaught of attacks on voting rights,” Deuel Ross, an attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund who argued on behalf of the plaintiffs, said in a statement. “Alabama attempted to rewrite federal law by saying race had no place in redistricting. But because of the state’s sordid and well-documented history of racial discrimination, race must be used to remedy that past and ensure communities of color are not boxed out of the electoral process.”
The ruling also is a boon to similar cases in Louisiana, Texas and Georgia, where litigants currently are suing to require the drawing of additional majority-minority districts. “This precedent also lays a foundation for fair map decisions in our other Section 2 cases,” said Marina Jenkins, the executive director of the National Redistricting Foundation, a Democratic-aligned group that is involved in those cases.
Alabama could have easily drawn a second majority-Black district, the challengers in the case argued. They offered several sample maps with possible configurations of how to do so. Last year, a three-judge panel unanimously agreed with that argument and ordered the state to do so. The panel, which included two judges appointed by Donald Trump, said the question of whether the state had violated the law was “not a close one”.
Notably, the majority rejected an argument from Alabama that it should only be required to draw an additional majority-Black district if the plaintiffs could prove it was required without considering race. That theory would have made it extremely difficult for plaintiffs to show discrimination had occurred in redistricting against minority voters.
“This court has long recognized – and as all members of this court today agree – the text of §2 establishes an effects test, not an intent test,” Kavanaugh wrote in a concurring opinion. “The effects test, as applied by Gingles to redistricting, requires in certain circumstances that courts account for the race of voters so as to prevent the cracking or packing – whether intentional or not – of large and geographically compact minority populations.”
Joe Biden praised the court’s decision and said he and Vice-President Kamala Harris would continue to push Congress to restore the full protections of the Voting Rights Act. The US supreme court, in a 5-4 opinion authored by Roberts in 2013, gutted a key provision of the law that required states with a history of voting discrimination to get voting changes pre-cleared by the federal government before they went into effect.
“The right to vote and have that vote counted is sacred and fundamental – it is the right from which all of our other rights spring. Key to that right is ensuring that voters pick their elected officials – not the other way around,” the president said in a statement. “Today’s decision confirms the basic principle that voting practices should not discriminate on account of race, but our work is not done.”
Merrick Garland, the US attorney general, praised the decision in a statement.
“Today’s decision rejects efforts to further erode fundamental voting rights protections, and preserves the principle that in the United States, all eligible voters must be able to exercise their constitutional right to vote free from discrimination based on their race,” he said. “The right to vote is the cornerstone of our democracy, the right from which all other rights ultimately flow.”
Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a dissenting opinion that was joined at various parts by fellow conservative justices Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Amy Coney Barrett. The supreme court has long misinterpreted section 2, he wrote, restating his prior view that it does not even apply to redistricting cases. He also wrote that the majority opinion required too much consideration of race in drawing district lines and urged a more race-neutral approach.
“As applied here, the amended §2 thus falls on the wrong side of ‘the line between measures that remedy or prevent unconstitutional actions and measures that make a substantive change in the governing law’,” Thomas wrote. “It replaces the constitutional right against intentionally discriminatory districting with an amorphous race-based right to a ‘fair’ distribution of political power, a ‘right’ that cannot be implemented without requiring the very evils the constitution forbids.”
Alito, writing separately in dissent, also said that the plaintiffs advocating for an additional majority-minority district “must show at the outset that such a district can be created without making race the predominant factor in its creation”.
“Today’s decision unnecessarily sets the VRA on a perilous and unfortunate path,” he wrote.
The supreme court intervened in February 2022 on an emergency request and allowed Alabama’s maps to go into effect for the 2022 elections. Even though Alabama’s election was not until the end of May, the court said it was too close to the election to upend the map.
Alabama had argued that the lower court had wrongly decided the case by taking race too much into account. The challengers in the case should have been required to show that they could draw a second majority-Black district without considering race at all, Edmund LaCour, the state’s solicitor general, said during oral argument last year.
The case was seen as a “textbook” example of the kind of discrimination in redistricting that section 2 of the Voting Rights Act was designed to prevent. The provision outlaws any voting practice that discriminates on the basis of race and litigants have frequently used it to challenge electoral maps that make it harder for minorities to elect the candidate of their choice. It was widely understood to be the most powerful remaining provision in the landmark civil rights law after the US supreme court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v Holder. That decision blocked another part of the landmark civil rights law requiring states with a history of voting discrimination to get their changes approved by the federal government.