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Federal court throws out Alabama’s new congressional map

Alabama ordered to draw new minority congressional district

A demonstrator holds a sign at a Jan. 19 voting rights rally outside the U.S. Capitol.
A demonstrator holds a sign at a Jan. 19 voting rights rally outside the U.S. Capitol. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

A panel of three federal judges tossed out Alabama’s latest congressional map in a ruling late Monday night, ordering the state to draw a new map that includes a second district where Black voters have a better chance to elect a candidate of their choice.

In the preliminary injunction, U.S. Circuit Judge Stanley Marcus and U.S. District Judges Anna Manasco and Terry Moorer of the Northern District of Alabama ordered the state to draw a new congressional map before its May primary, finding the current one likely violated the Voting Rights Act. The two lawsuits at issue allege the state legislature unlawfully packed most of the state’s Black voters into the 7th District and scattered the rest of the Black population among the other districts — and the court agreed.

“Black voters have less opportunity than other Alabamians to elect candidates of their choice to Congress,” the ruling said.

The ruling delayed by two weeks the state’s Jan. 28 candidate qualification deadline to allow for a new map to be drawn. It was the first time a federal court has ruled against a map for likely Voting Rights violations this redistricting cycle.

In the ruling, the judges also left open the possibility of drawing their own map if the legislature fails to draw one that passes muster.

The American Civil Liberties Union and other plaintiffs in the case immediately praised the ruling.

“It’s past time for Alabama to move beyond its sordid history of racial discrimination at the polls, and to listen to and be responsive to the needs and concerns of voters of color. Not ensuring access to the ballot for all of the people and communities in Alabama is holding this state back from realizing its full potential,” Tish Gotell Faulks, legal director of the ACLU of Alabama, said in a statement.

Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall criticized the ruling, saying he “strongly disagrees with the court’s decision and will be appealing in the coming days,” according to a statement issued by spokesman Mike Lewis.

Alabama’s legislature finalized the map in November, following a several month delay in delivery of census redistricting data due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Rep. Terri Sewell, the Democrat who currently represents the state’s only majority-minority district, called the ruling “monumental news” in a statement released after the ruling. Sewell is the primary House sponsor of the latest effort to pass an updated Voting Rights Act, which has so far stalled in the evenly-divided Senate.

“Increasing political representation of Black Alabamians is exactly what John Lewis and the Foot Soldiers who marched across the bridge in my hometown of Selma fought for,” Sewell said.

The judges found the map likely violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act by diluting the voting power of Black voters who make up more than a quarter of the state’s population. Democrats have launched a multi-year campaign to pass a new VRA in the wake of a 2013 Supreme Court decision, Shelby County v. Holder, that effectively ended preclearance of election changes under Section 5 of the law.

In prior election cycles, the congressional maps for Alabama and six other states would have had to undergo Justice Department review before going into effect. Proponents of a new VRA have argued that while challenges under Section 2 of the law, such as the Alabama case, are still possible, they are more costly and time consuming than preclearance.

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