WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Thursday blocked Republican-drawn congressional districts in Alabama that civil rights activists say are biased against black voters.
In a 5-4 vote, the court ruled against The map of seven congressional districts in Alabama, which is heavily Republican, will now be redrawn. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Brett Kavanagh, both conservatives, joined the majority of the court’s three liberals.
In doing so, the court — which had a 6-3 conservative majority — rejected the state’s attempt to make it harder to address concerns raised by civil rights advocates that the power of black voters in states like Alabama is being diluted by electorate segregation. Districts dominated by white voters.
In the ruling, Roberts, writing for the majority, said a lower court correctly concluded that Congress’s map violated the Voting Rights Act.
In 2013, Roberts wrote a ruling that struck down a separate, critical provision of the Voting Rights Act, and has long argued that various government efforts to address historic racial discrimination are complex and could worsen the situation.
In Thursday’s ruling, he wrote that there are real fears that the Voting Rights Act “may impermissibly elevate race in the distribution of political power” and that the Alabama ruling “does not diminish or ignore those concerns.”
Roberts added that instead the court “a faithful application of our precedents and a fair reading of the record before us will not hold here.”
Thus, Cavanaugh wrote in a separate opinion that the court left open future challenges to the law, and that his vote did not reject challenges to Section 2 based on whether the 1965 statute authorized time to consider race. Restructuring is no longer justified.
Civil rights groups and their supporters, including President Joe Biden, scored a largely unexpected victory.
“Today’s decision affirms the fundamental principle that voting practices should not discriminate on the basis of race, but our work is not done,” Biden said in a statement. He again called on Congress to enact a new Voting Rights Act.
NAACP President Derrick Johnson praised the Supreme Court for rejecting what he characterized as an attempt to suppress the black vote.
“This decision is a victory for black America and a victory for our democracy,” he said. But, he said, “this fight is far from over.”
Despite the ruling, Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall vowed to continue the battle over state maps.
“While the majority’s decision is disappointing, this case is far from over,” he said in a brief statement.
The two consolidated cases stem from lawsuits over new congressional district maps drawn by the Republican-controlled Alabama Legislature after the 2020 census. Challengers, including individual voters and the Alabama State Convention of the NAACP, argued that the map violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act by discriminating against black voters.
The new map created one of the seven counties in the state in which black voters could elect the candidate of their choice. Challengers say a state with more than a quarter of the population black should have two such districts and provide evidence that such a district could be drawn.
A lower court agreed in a ruling last January that, under Supreme Court precedent, the plaintiffs had shown that Alabama’s black population was large enough and sufficiently compact to qualify as the second majority-black district. The court ordered a new map drawn, but the state’s Republican Attorney General Steve Marshall turned to the Supreme Court, which agreed to stay the case and hear the case.
Four conservative justices led by Justice Clarence Thomas dissented from Thursday’s ruling.
“There is no need for the federal judiciary to determine the exact racial apportionment of Alabama’s congressional seats,” Thomas wrote.
According to the approach taken by the lower court, Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act “is nothing more than a racial right to roughly proportional control of election offices … different racial groups consistently prefer different candidates.”
Last year, the Supreme Court split 5-4 on allowing a Republican-drawn map to be used in the November election, with Roberts joining the court’s three liberals in dissent. Kavanagh pointed out at the time that his vote to allow the use of the map was based on a lower court ruling handed down so close to the election.
Republicans won six of the seven seats in the election, with Democrats winning majority-black districts. Because black voters are more likely to vote Democratic, Democrats may have gained additional seats had the new map been adopted.
The Alabama case and Supreme Court decisions may have contributed to Republicans holding onto their fragile majority in the House of Representatives.
Alabama argued that the lower court overemphasized race in reaching its decisions. Marshall said in court documents that the fact that the challengers were able to demonstrate that they could use computer-generated maps to draw a second majority-black district was not sufficient evidence that the state’s actions were discriminatory. He cited other traditional “race-neutral” map-drawing factors that take into account issues such as regional culture and identity, as well as requiring districts to have similar populations.
Richard Bildes, an election law expert at New York University School of Law, said the ruling was “more significant … than reaffirming the status quo.”
That’s because the court effectively approved the use of computer-generated maps in challenging districts. New technology makes it easier to find maps that can be challenged under the Voting Rights Act, he said.
The Supreme Court has weakened the Voting Rights Act in two cases in the past decade, starting in 2013 when it gutted a key provision of the law that allowed federal oversight of election law changes in some states. In a 2021 ruling out of Arizona, the court made it more difficult to bring cases under Section 2.
The case is one of three the court will hear in a current period in which conservative lawyers have advanced race-neutral arguments favored by the right as a way to address racial discrimination. Among others, the court could end affirmative action on college admissions and block part of the law that would have allowed Native Americans to adopt Native American children.
The court is considering another significant election dispute in its current term, a Republican attempt to limit the ability of state courts to enforce state constitutional provisions in federal elections. That ruling, due later this month, will make it easier for Republican legislatures to control voting rights.
Correction (June 8, 2023, 1:41 pm ET): An earlier version of this article misstated the year of the lower court ruling. This is January 2022, not last January.