The Supreme Court on Thursday sided with Black voters who challenged Alabama’s congressional map as a violation of the Voting Rights Act, meaning the state likely will have to draw a new map with another majority-minority district before the 2024 election.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., writing the 5-4 majority opinion, upheld lower court rulings that found that Alabama’s congressional map, known as HB1, likely violated the VRA because it only has a single district where Black voters would have the opportunity to elect candidates of their choice.
Thursday’s opinion could also spur redistricting in more than just Alabama, which currently is represented by six Republicans and one Democrat. The justices had paused the lower court rulings while they considered the case, allowing Alabama to use its original map for the 2022 election.
The ruling also directly affects the map in Louisiana, where the Supreme Court paused a similar ruling against the state’s map while it dealt with the Alabama cases. Several other states, including Georgia, Texas and South Carolina, are still facing federal litigation challenging their maps under the VRA.
Thursday’s decision, which some Supreme Court watchers called surprising, comes a decade after Roberts wrote the opinion in Shelby County v. Holder that wiped out a key VRA enforcement mechanism.
That ruling tossed the formula the Justice Department used to subject states and localities to preclearance of election law changes and changed redistricting efforts nationwide.
Alabama appealed a judgment from a three-judge panel that its congressional map discriminated against Black voters in part by splitting up the Black population in the state’s Black Belt — named for its soil — among the state’s other six districts.
The panel of three federal judges in Alabama found the state’s map discriminated against Black voters since they are more than 25 percent of the state’s population but can choose their representative in only one of seven districts. The Supreme Court case combined two lawsuits from voters in the state challenging the map.
Roberts, joined by Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh and the court’s three liberal justices, wrote that the lower court correctly applied Supreme Court precedent when finding Alabama should draw a second district where Black voters could elect the candidate of their choice.
“We are content to reject Alabama’s invitation to change existing law,” Roberts said.
Alabama’s solicitor general, Edmund LaCour Jr., said in oral arguments that the lower court, by allowing the challengers to prioritize race when drawing a map that shows a possible additional majority-minority district, effectively mandated the state to violate the Constitution by dividing up voters by race.
The majority of the court explicitly rejected Alabama’s argument for a “race-neutral” evaluation of congressional districts that relies on hundreds of computer-generated maps. Roberts wrote that would make it too difficult to prove a map violated the VRA and go against the law’s goal to prevent racial discrimination in legislative districts.
“Section 2 cannot require courts to judge a contest of computers when there is no reliable way to determine who wins, or even where the finish line is,” Roberts wrote.
Roberts’ opinion also rejected Alabama’s effort to declare that the VRA does not apply to congressional districts, or that it was a violation of the 15th Amendment and unconstitutional.
Justice Clarence Thomas filed a dissenting opinion, and was joined by Justices Samuel A. Alito Jr., Neil M. Gorsuch and Amy Coney Barrett in parts of it. Thomas criticized the majority for siding against Alabama in a decision he said would effectively mandate proportional representation for minority voters across the country — which he described as a violation of the Constitution.
“The only benchmark that can justify it — and the one that the District Court demonstrably applied — is the decidedly nonneutral benchmark of proportional allocation of political power based on race,” Thomas wrote.
Thomas would have preferred a race-neutral test of mapmaking. “The text of [the VRA] and the logic of vote-dilution claims require a meaningfully race-neutral benchmark, and no race-neutral benchmark can justify the District Court’s finding of vote dilution in these cases,” Thomas wrote.
Challengers to Alabama’s map praised the decision Thursday, including Elias Law Group partner Abha Khanna, who argued the case before the Supreme Court.
“Alabama’s current congressional map systematically dilutes the voting power of Black Alabamians, in clear violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. Thankfully, the Court today identified Alabama’s redistricting scheme as a textbook violation of the landmark civil rights law,” Khanna said in a statement.
The Biden administration argued against Alabama in the case, and Attorney General Merrick B. Garland said the ruling will prevent racial discrimination in voting and “rejects efforts to further erode fundamental voting rights protections.”
Garland also called on Congress to pass legislation giving the DOJ additional authority to enforce voting rights, though Democratic efforts to do so have stalled over the past decade.
“The right to vote is the cornerstone of our democracy, the right from which all other rights ultimately flow,” Garland’s statement said. “Over the past two years, the Justice Department has rededicated its resources to enforcing federal voting rights protections. We will continue to use every authority we have left to defend voting rights.”
House Minority Leader Rep. Hakeem Jeffries praised the decision Thursday in a news conference and said Alabama had engaged in racial gerrymandering.
“And they’re not the only ones throughout the country who have done that, and we can at least draw some comfort from the fact that the 1965 Voting Rights Act remains alive,” the New York Democrat said.
Rep. Terri A. Sewell, the only Democrat in Alabama’s congressional delegation, tweeted that the decision was “Amazing!!”
“Historic victory for the Voting Rights Act, our Democracy and Alabama Black Voters!!!” said Sewell, who is Black.
Ryan Tarinelli contributed to this report.