Supreme Court rules Alabama discriminated against Black voters in major victory for voting rights

A surprise 5-4 decision on the conservative-majority panel is a rare win in defense of the Voting Rights Act

Alex Woodward
Thursday 08 June 2023 10:40 EDT
Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson takes on Alabama's 'race blind' argument in voting right case

In a victory for voting rights and Alabama voters, the US Supreme Court has ruled that the state diluted the power of Black voters with its congressional redistricting plan, affirming a landmark civil rights law.

The state likely discriminated against Black voters with a Republican-drawn map that packs most of the state’s Black residents into a single district, out of seven, despite Black residents making up 27 per cent of the state’s population.

A key ruling in the case of Allen v Milligan on 8 June means that the state will have to re-draw its congressional map to include a second majority-Black district.

The surprise 5-4 decision on the conservative-majority panel was written by Chief Justice John Roberts, joined by liberal Justices Elena Kagan, Ketanji Brown Jackson and Sonia Sotomayor, with partial but crucial concurrence from conservative Brett Kavanaugh.

Conservative justices Samuel Alito, Amy Coney Barrett, Neil Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas dissented.

Last year, a lower court ordered the state to draw new political boundaries that would create at least two districts in which Black voters would be more likely to elect a representative to Congress that more closely resembles the state’s demographics.

The Voting Rights Act was drafted to prevent that kind of race-based dilution of Black voters. But attorneys for the state argued the opposite – that considering race to redraw political boundaries would mark an unconstitutional consideration of “racial targets” and “race-based sorting”, in violation of the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause.

The justices rejected that argument.

A decision that sided with Alabama attorneys would have radically reduced Black voters’ political power and landed a critical blow to a state with a long history of racist violence and discrimination.

Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act prohibits voting laws and election policies from discriminating on the basis of race. The state’s suggestion that “race should play no role whatsoever” to determine whether redistricting plans violate Section 2 would “rewrite” the law and “overturn decades of settled precedent,” according to the map’s challengers.

Attorneys for President Joe Biden’s administration argued that Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act should be considered when “pervasive racial politics would otherwise deny minority voters equal electoral opportunities.”

The map’s challengers argued that is precisely what is at stake in Alabama.

“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,” President Joe Biden said in a statement welcoming the court’s decision.

Mr Biden urged Congress to advance stalled efforts to revive and expand the Voting Rights Act.

Evan Milligan, the plaintiff in Merrill v Milligan before the Supreme Court, addressed reported in Washington DC in October after oral arguments in the case.

The case before the court stems from a 2021 lawsuit filed on behalf of Greater Birmingham Ministries, Alabama State Conference of the NAACP, and a group of voters represented by the American Civil Liberties Union and NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, among others.

A group of Black voters filed a similar lawsuit in 2018 and lost.

The state’s sole majority-Black district – currently represented by Democratic US Rep Terri Sewell – has a voting population that is 60 per cent Black, roughly one-third of the state’s Black population.

The state’s remaining Black population is “cracked” across the First, Second and Third congressional districts – all represented by white Republicans.

“This decision is a crucial win against the continued onslaught of attacks on voting rights,” according to a statement from NAACP Legal Defense and Educational senior counsel Deuel Ross, who argued the case before the court last October.

“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,” he added.

The decision on 8 June comes days before the 10th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v Holder that gutted critical federal oversight measures in the 1965 Voting Rights Act intended to protect against discriminatory election laws. In 2021, a decision in Brnovich v Democratic National Committee involving Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act further limited the ability to challenge restrictions on voting rights.

After passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, the US Department of Justice rejected hundreds of proposed changes to voting laws to prevent discriminatory outcomes.

But after the high court’s ruling in 2013, states closed hundreds of polling places, disproportionately targeting areas with voters of colour, and GOP lawmakers filed scores of restrictive voting laws, culminating in a wave of Republican-led legislation to change the rules of election administration in the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election.

The Supreme Court’s latest ruling could impact similar Section 2 challenges involving recently redrawn congressional districts in several other southern states, and could reshape the political map heading into 2024 elections.

A case in Louisiana similarly argues that the state would also need a second majority-Black congressional district to comply with the Voting Rights Act.

“History shows us that lawmakers will erect many more hurdles before every Alabamian, irrespective of their race, can vote for representatives that reflect their beliefs, values, and priorities,” Tish Gotell Faulks, legal director of the ACLU of Alabama, said in a statement

“Efforts remain underway from Montgomery to Jackson to Baton Rouge, and elsewhere across the country to minimize, marginalize, and eliminate the ability of Black and brown people to have a voice in their communities,” she added. “Our communities then – as now – understand that the fight to uphold our civil rights is a daily pursuit. We will persist.”

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