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Supreme Court to hear arguments on use of race in South Carolina congressional map

A lower court said district lines violated the Fourteenth Amendment

A Supreme Court decision could affect how competitive South Carolina’s 1st District could be for Democrats.
A Supreme Court decision could affect how competitive South Carolina’s 1st District could be for Democrats. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The Supreme Court will hear arguments Wednesday over whether a South Carolina congressional district is an unconstitutional gerrymander against Black voters, a case that could shape how race plays a role in the redistricting process.

South Carolina officials want the justices to overturn a lower court ruling from January that threw out the state’s 1st District lines drawn after the 2020 census and ordered the map redrawn.

A three-judge panel found race was the “predominant motivating factor” in the map approved by the Republican-controlled state legislature, which meant it violated the Equal Protection Clause in the 14th Amendment.

But state officials contend the changes were made with political motives, setting up a test about how courts review similar gerrymandering challenges when racial identification and political affiliation can be highly correlated.

“The case is interesting because it raises questions about exactly what they were trying to do,” said Steven D. Schwinn, a professor of law at the University of Illinois Chicago School of Law. “South Carolina of course says it wasn’t using race at all, or at least not predominantly — it was using politics. Now, the problem is that even if that’s true, it’s still using race.”

“Whatever way the court rules, it will likely telegraph some information about how it views racial gerrymandering under the Equal Protection Clause,” Schwinn said.

The Supreme Court’s decision also could affect whether the state’s 1st District could be more competitive for Democrats. The lower court has paused the submission of a redrawn map until after the Supreme Court decision, and it’s unclear if that could come in time to affect the 2024 election.

Republican Rep. Nancy Mace first won the 1st District seat in 2020, two years after Democrat Joe Cunningham had won the seat in an upset win. She won reelection in 2022.

30,000 residents

A single voter and the state’s NAACP filed the litigation and argued that state legislators manipulated the congressional map to minimize the voting power of Black voters.

The lower court found state lawmakers deliberately moved 30,000 Black residents from Charleston County out of the district to keep its population about 17 percent Black, a “target” that meant the district would keep a “desired partisan tilt” in favor of Republicans.

The South Carolina officials argued in a brief that allowing that ruling to stand would invite federal courts to “micromanage political disputes” in districts nationwide “under the guise of superintending the fine-tuning of their racial composition.”

Courts “could always purport to infer racial predominance or a racial target from lines that correlate with both race and politics — and thereby insert themselves into political disputes under the guise of enforcing the Constitution’s prohibition on racial gerrymandering,” the officials wrote in a brief.

The officials also told the justices that the lower court made errors and “ran roughshod over the obvious political explanation for District 1 and the challenged line.”

Attorneys for the state’s NAACP argue in a brief that South Carolina has not pointed out any errors that would be enough to undercut the lower court, which reached its conclusion after an eight-day trial that featured testimony from 42 witnesses and hundreds of exhibits.

“Using race as the predominant means to sort voters is unconstitutional even if done for partisan goals,” the NAACP wrote.

The Constitutional Accountability Center, in a brief in the case, argued South Carolina may not utilize race predominantly to reach a partisan goal.

“If mere invocation of a partisan goal were sufficient to insulate racial gerrymandering from attack, states could make an end-run around the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. That is not the law,” lawyers with the center wrote.

Congressional interest

The South Carolina delegation in the House currently has six Republicans and one Democrat, Rep. James E. Clyburn.

The Republican lawmakers filed a brief that urged the Supreme Court to reject the lower court’s ruling, saying the court was “bent on destroying the Legislature’s duly enacted and carefully negotiated map.”

The lawmakers, in a filing to the court, said the legislature’s map was “substantially similar” to a map previously approved by the judiciary as constitutional.

“By invalidating such a map, the decision of the court below effectively contradicts this Court’s precedent and creates uncertainty,” the lawmakers argued.

Clyburn submitted a separate brief and urged the court to uphold the “careful and detailed findings” of the three-judge panel.

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