A federal court again struck down Alabama’s congressional map

A panel of federal judges on Tuesday threw out Alabama’s latest congressional map, ruling that a new map must be drawn because Republican lawmakers failed to comply with orders to create a second majority-black district, or one “close to it.”

In a scathing rebuke, the justices ordered the new map to be drawn independently, taking responsibility away from the Republican-controlled Legislature and chastising state officials who “ultimately lack the ambition to provide the necessary solutions.”

The Legislature quickly pushed through a revised map in July after a Supreme Court ruling that Alabama’s current map undermined the power of the state’s black voters and violated a key civil rights law. The revised map, approved over the objections of Democrats, raised the percentage of black voters in one of the state’s six majority-white congressional districts from about 30 percent to about 40 percent.

In its new ruling, a three-judge panel in Alabama found that the legislature overstepped its mandate under the court’s ruling.

“The law requires the creation of an additional district that gives black Alabamians, like everyone else, a fair and reasonable opportunity to elect the candidates of their choice,” the justices wrote. “The 2023 plan fails to do so.”

Responsibility for the new map now falls to a special master, Richard Allen, a longtime Alabama attorney who has served under several Republican attorneys general, and cartographer David Ely, a demographer from California. Both were appointed by the court.

The decision – or the independent map produced – can be appealed. State officials have said a new congressional map should be drawn up by early October in preparation for the 2024 election.

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The case has been closely watched in Washington and across the country, and as many states in the South face similar voting rights challenges, control of the U.S. House of Representatives is on a thin edge. Key lawmakers in Washington — including Speaker Kevin McCarthy of California and Democrats in the Congressional Black Caucus — are keeping careful tabs on the redistricting effort.

“What happened in Alabama this summer underscores the need for the Justice Department to remain steadfast in its obligations to enforce the Voting Rights Act’s important protections,” said Eric Holder, former attorney general and president of the National Restoration Foundation. The Democratic caucus has supported several suffrage-based map challenges, including in Alabama.

The Alabama Attorney General’s Office, which defended the legislative map in the case, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

At least one Alabama district could become an electoral hotbed with the new map as black voters in Alabama tend to vote for Democratic candidates, according to at least one nonpartisan political analysis.

The result is combined Judge Stanley Marcus, nominated by former President Bill Clinton; and by judges Anna M. Manasco And Terry F. Moorer, both named to their positions by former President Donald J. Named by Trump. (Judge Marcus usually sits on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Atlanta.)

For Alabama, the ruling halts nearly two years of litigation, marking another instance in the state’s turbulent history where the court forced officials to follow federal civil rights and voting laws.

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Two decades ago, a lawsuit forced the creation of the Seventh Congressional District in southwest Alabama, the state’s only majority black district. (Under the Republican-drawn map rejected Tuesday, the share of black voters in that district dropped from about 55 percent to about 51 percent.)

“This really ensures that people who are consistently marginalized from politics or excluded by law have an opportunity — not a guarantee — but a realistic opportunity to elect candidates of their choice,” said senior director Kareem Grayton. Brennan Center for Justice and a Montgomery, Ala. “It’s very sad that we have to fight for that policy in 2023.”

After the 2020 Census began the process of drawing district lines across the country for the next decade, the Alabama Legislature maintained six congressional districts with one white Republican. Because more than one-fourth of Alabama’s residents are black, a group of black voters challenged the map under a key voting rights law.

The Birmingham court said the map should be redrawn, but the Supreme Court intervened and said the new map could not be placed too close to primary races ahead of the 2022 election.

In doing so, the Supreme Court unexpectedly upheld a key residual doctrine of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibits any voting law that “denies or abridges the right to vote to any citizen of the United States on account of race . . .” The court struck down much of that landmark civil rights law a decade ago, and many expected a similar outcome in the Alabama case.

But in a weeklong special session, Republicans refused to create a second majority-black district and protected their six incumbents from a brutal primary at a time when the party has only a slim majority in the U.S. House of Representatives.

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Republicans defended their revised map, calling it a reasonable effort to keep districts and communities with similar economic and geographic challenges together while still adhering to the Constitution. Democrats and black voters who have brought the challenge have squandered an opportunity to provide equal representation to historically disenfranchised voters.

At a hearing in August, a panel of judges clarified their skepticism by pressing prosecutors hard on whether the revised map was sufficient to comply with their guidelines on how to address voting rights violations.

“I hear you say, the state of Alabama willfully ignored our instructions,” Judge Moorer said at one point.

In a separate order stressing the need for speedy action, the three-judge panel laid down guidelines for drawing up an independent map.

The special master has until Sept. 25 to prepare three proposed plans that comply with the Voting Rights Act and the Constitution, and that include a second district with a black majority or giving black voters the opportunity to “elect their representative. Choice.”

Objections to those plans can be filed within three days of submission to the court. If a hearing on the objections is deemed necessary, the court will convene on Oct. 3.

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