Supreme Court Rejects Voting Map That Diluted Black Voters’ Power

Voting rights advocates had feared a decision would undermine the Voting Rights Act, which instead appeared to emerge unscathed.

Adam Liptak

By Adam Liptak

Reporting from Washington

June 8, 2023, 10:40 a.m. ET

The Supreme Court, in a surprise decision, ruled that Alabama had diluted the power of Black voters by drawing a congressional voting map with a single district in which they made up a majority.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote the majority opinion in the 5-to-4 ruling. He was joined by Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh and the court’s three liberal members, Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Ketanji Brown Jackson.

Voting rights advocates had feared the decision would undermine the Voting Rights Act, which instead appeared to emerge unscathed.

The chief justice wrote that there were legitimate concerns that the law “may impermissibly elevate race in the allocation of political power within the states.” He added: “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.”

The case was part of a pitched battle over redistricting playing out across the country. Civil rights leaders say the redistricting process often disadvantages growing minority communities. Republican state officials say the Constitution allows only a limited role for the consideration of race in drawing voting districts.

The case started after Alabama’s Legislature, which is controlled by Republicans, redrew the congressional map to take account of the 2020 census.

The state has seven congressional districts, and its voting-age population is about 27 percent Black. The new map maintained a single district in which Black voters made up a majority.

That district has long elected a Democrat, while the state’s other six districts are represented by Republicans.

After Black voters and advocacy groups challenged the map under the Voting Rights Act, the landmark civil rights law enacted in 1965 to protect minority voters, a unanimous three-judge panel of the Federal District Court in Birmingham ruled that the Legislature should have fashioned a second district “in which Black voters either comprise a voting-age majority or something quite close to it.”

The unsigned decision was joined by Judge Stanley Marcus, who ordinarily sits on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, in Atlanta, and who was appointed by President Bill Clinton; and by Judges Anna M. Manasco and Terry F. Moorer, both appointed by President Donald J. Trump.

The panel found that voting in the state is racially polarized and that it would be possible to draw “a second reasonably configured district” to allow Black voters to elect their favored candidates.

Last year, the Supreme Court temporarily blocked the lower court’s ruling by a 5-to-4 vote, ensuring that the 2022 election would take place using the Legislature’s map, the one with a single district in which Black voters were in the majority.

In 2013, in Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court effectively gutted Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which had required federal approval of changes to state and local voting laws in parts of the country with a history of racial discrimination. But that ruling assured the public that Section 2 of the law would remain in place to protect voting rights by allowing litigation after the fact.

In 2021, in Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee, the court cut backon Section 2 of the law, limiting the ability of minority groups to challenge voting restrictions.

The new case from Alabama, Allen v. Milligan, No. 21-1086, also concerns Section 2, but in the context of redistricting.

Section 2 bars any voting procedure that “results in a denial or abridgment of the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race.” That happens, the provision goes on, when, “based on the totality of circumstances,” racial minorities “have less opportunity than other members of the electorate to participate in the political process and to elect representatives of their choice.”

Adam Liptak covers the Supreme Court and writes Sidebar, a column on legal developments. A graduate of Yale Law School, he practiced law for 14 years before joining The Times in 2002. @adamliptakFacebook

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