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Supreme Court allows Alabama to use GOP congressional map

The ruling means Alabama may be holding its primary using a map that a lower court found was likely in violation of the Voting Rights Act

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Elena Kagan, seen here at the 2020 State of the Union address, dissented to Monday’s 5-4 ruling.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Elena Kagan, seen here at the 2020 State of the Union address, dissented to Monday’s 5-4 ruling. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The Supreme Court in an order Monday allowed Alabama to keep its congressional district map, pausing a lower court ruling that tossed out the map for likely violating the Voting Rights Act.

The Supreme Court’s 5-4 vote staying the lower court order marks the first time the justices have weighed in on a congressional map this redistricting cycle. Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh emphasized the stay only allows the court to consider the case and did not represent a ruling on the arguments.

“The court’s stay order is not a decision on the merits,” Kavanaugh wrote.

The decision means that as the legal challenge plays out, Alabama will most likely hold its May 24 primary under a map the lower court found likely violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965 because it includes only one majority-Black district in a state where more than a quarter of the population is Black.

Justice Elena Kagan wrote a dissenting opinion criticizing the majority for taking the case. She was joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Stephen G. Breyer, who, like Kagan, were both appointed by Democratic presidents. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., a George W. Bush appointee, wrote a separate dissent.

“The district court here did everything right under the law existing today. Staying its decision forces Black Alabamians to suffer what under that law is clear vote dilution,” Kagan wrote.

In the preliminary injunction that Alabama appealed, a panel of three federal judges ordered the GOP-controlled legislature to draw a new congressional map before its May primary.

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 panel of judges agreed.

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

Alabama had until Feb. 11 to pass a new map in advance of a May primary, but it did not acted. In a separate ruling Thursday, the lower court panel had named a pair of experts to draw a map in case the state had failed to do so by the deadline.

The case may weigh heavily on the future of the Voting Rights Act’s role in redistricting, as experts said previous Supreme Court decisions have whittled away at the law’s sway. In the meantime, Democratic-led efforts to pass a new version of the law have flopped in the closely divided Senate.

In its Supreme Court appeal last month, Alabama argued that to comply with the lower court’s order to draw at least two minority-opportunity districts, the state would have to prioritize race ahead of all other redistricting considerations.

The order requires a map “that can be drawn only by placing race first above race-neutral districting criteria, sorting and splitting voters across the State on the basis of race alone,” the appeal said.

The civil rights groups that originally challenged the map argued Alabama put words in the mouth of a redistricting expert, who testified that mapmakers could draw multiple minority opportunity districts in the state. Alabama, in its appeal, tried to conflate the expert’s testimony with a report she wrote that was not in the case, the groups argued.

Alabama created an “imaginary case in which Plaintiffs could only create illustrative maps with two majority-Black districts by drawing non-compact districts that disregard the State’s traditional redistricting principles. No such facts exist here,” according to the brief filed in response to the appeal.

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