In Surprise Ruling, Supreme Court Delivers Major Victory For Voters
By PETER SCHURMANN
The Supreme Court on June 8 issued a surprise ruling, ordering officials in Alabama to redraw the state’s congressional map, creating an additional Black majority district. African Americans are 27% of the state’s population and currently hold one of the state’s seven seats in Congress.
The ruling is being hailed by advocates who feared the court’s conservative 6-3 majority would further erode voting rights in a state where minorities have long struggled for greater political representation.
“WE WON!!! This is an outstanding win for… Black voters in Alabama,” wrote Janai Nelson, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, in a Twitter post. “At a time, when the fact of anti-Black discrimination is being denied across the country, the Supreme Court’s recognition that it is ongoing and derivative of the past enslavement of Black people is not to be undersold or minimized.”
“This ruling comes at a critical juncture in our nation’s history, as voter suppression efforts and discriminatory practices continue to threaten the fundamental principle of one person, one vote,” Amnesia Hardy, executive director of the grassroots organizing group Alabama Values, said in a statement put out by the group. “The decision serves as a beacon of hope, inspiring renewed confidence in the strength and resilience of our democracy and the power of the people’s voice.”
Michael Waldman, president, and CEO of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law, said in a press release that “vindicating the rights of Alabama voters is a huge victory for civil rights and a welcome surprise.”
“The Voting Rights Act is one of the country’s most effective civil rights laws. This decision will ensure that voters of color can continue to use Section 2 to assure their equal opportunity to participate in elections, in Alabama and around the country,” Waldman noted.
A surprise SCOTUS ruling
At issue in the case, Allen v. Milligan, was the right of African American voters to a second congressional district under proportional representation guidelines based on Census 2020 data. Plaintiffs in the case argued that a heavily gerrymandered Republican-drawn map discriminated against African American voters in violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.
The Supreme Court last year stayed a lower court’s ruling ordering Alabama officials to redraw the map, raising concerns around potential rulings in similar cases involving voting rights before the court.
Reporting by CNN notes the earlier ruling shaped control over the U.S. House of Representatives following the 2022 midterm elections as lower courts in other states upheld their own racially gerrymandered maps, leading to “as many as six seats” now controlled by Republicans that might have otherwise gone to Democrats.
Vox reports the decision gives Democrats a boost at reclaiming the House next year, with several redistricting challenges in several states potentially leading to new minority-majority districts that favor Democrats.
5-4 ruling saw Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Brett Kavanaugh siding with the court’s three liberal judges.
“A district is not equally open,” noted Roberts, who authored the majority opinion, “when minority voters face – unlike their majority peers – bloc voting along racial lines, arising against the backdrop of substantial racial discrimination within the State, that renders a minority vote unequal to a vote by a nonminority voter.”
Roberts’ decision comes a decade after he helped gut Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act that required mostly former Confederate states with a proven history of discriminatory voting practices to get federal approval for any proposed changes to their election laws.
In a dissenting opinion, conservative justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch argued the Voting Rights Act should not be applied to the drawing of district maps and should only be considered in cases involving “ballot access and counting.”
Redrawing the maps
Stuart Naifah, manager of the Redistricting Project at the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, helped argue the case before the court. In an interview with EMS, he said what comes next as far as drawing new maps is “yet to be determined.”
But, he added, with the congressional primaries coming in March and with a presidential election later in the year, “We need to get a new map in place very quickly.”
As part of the lower court ruling last year rejecting Alabama’s current map, a special master was appointed to redraw district lines. “That is the one possible outcome and the one we are pushing for,” said Naifah, “that we go back to ask the court to appoint a special master to develop a new map that can be used in time for the next election.”
Naifah also echoed others in saying the ruling has consequences that go beyond Alabama voters.
“This is absolutely not unique to Alabama,” he said, explaining that Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act applies to all states, not just those covered under Section 5. “So, this decision applies nationwide.”
Similar cases involving challenges to racially gerrymandered maps are pending in South Carolina and in Louisiana, where a district court ruled Republican-drawn maps illegally discriminate against Black voters.
A sigh of relief, and a note of caution
Plaintiffs in the Louisiana case are taking heart from the ruling.
“Right now, this is a really great victory,” NAACP Legal Defense Fund attorney Jared Evans told the non-profit news outlet Louisiana Illuminator. “We’re grateful and really excited for Black voters in Alabama and for Louisiana, too.”
Still, given the court’s recent trajectory and with several significant rulings expected in the coming weeks – including one many expect will lead to the end of Affirmative Action – some are welcoming on June 8 news with a note of caution.
“I wonder if today’s victory is supposed to be a pacifier as the Roberts Court plans to strike down affirmative action in the days to come,” wrote political commentator and former White House Aid Keith Boykin on Twitter.
Waldman stressed that despite the win in Alabama, Congress still needs to move to restore the Voting Rights Acts. “Congress can and must still act to restore the VRA to full strength. John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act/Freedom to Vote Act. Needed today as much as yesterday.” (Ethnic Media Services)