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Supreme Court backs South Carolina’s congressional map

Justices wipe out lower court ruling that found the state improperly used race to draw lines

Activists gathered outside the Supreme Court for oral arguments in the South Carolina racial gerrymandering case in October.
Activists gathered outside the Supreme Court for oral arguments in the South Carolina racial gerrymandering case in October. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

A divided Supreme Court on Thursday overturned a lower court ruling that found South Carolina had discriminated against Black voters when it drew its latest congressional districts.

The 6-3 decision found that the evidence did not support the lower court’s conclusion that state legislators had relied on race when they drew the district currently held by second-term Republican Rep. Nancy Mace. That allows the state to continue using the current seven congressional districts, drawn after the 2020 Census.

The majority opinion, written by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. and joined by the court’s Republican-appointed justices, said state legislators should receive the benefit of the doubt when faced with racial discrimination claims so litigants cannot “repackage” claims of partisan gerrymandering that the court has already said it will not decide.

A dissent from Justice Elena Kagan, joined by other Democrat-appointed justices, contends that the ruling will make it harder to prove racial discrimination in redistricting challenges.

Thursday’s decision reversed a three-judge lower court ruling which held that legislators had deliberately moved 30,000 Black residents from Charleston County out of the district to keep the population about 17 percent Black. The Republican-controlled legislature moved the voters from the district held by Mace to the district held by the state’s sole Democrat, Rep. James E. Clyburn.

The judges wrote that targeting Black voters in that way preserved the desired partisan tilt of the district in Republicans’ favor, and they ordered the state to draw a new map by last March. However, the redrawing was put on hold pending the Supreme Court appeal.

The Supreme Court rejected the factual findings of the lower court, writing that that the lower court’s conclusion that race predominated in the design of the map was “clearly erroneous.”

Alito wrote that the state should receive a “presumption of legislative good faith” and called claims of racial gerrymandering “weapons of political warfare” that are used to achieve partisan ends.

“The fact of the matter is that politics pervaded the highly visible mapmaking process from start to finish,” the opinion said.

State legislators had argued that they moved Black voters from one district to another to preserve the partisan balance of Mace’s district. Alito wrote that the lower court had made a mistake by inferring a racial motive rather than the stated partisan one.

“None of the facts on which the District Court relied to infer a racial motive is sufficient to support an inference that can overcome the presumption of legislative good faith,” Alito wrote.

The Supreme Court decided in a 2019 opinion, Rucho v. Common Cause, that federal courts could not hear claims of partisan gerrymandering. Alito wrote that the close link between partisan affiliation and race would allow challengers to “reverse-engineer” claims of partisan gerrymandering into racial discrimination.

“Our decisions cannot be evaded with such ease,” Alito wrote.

Justice Clarence Thomas joined most of the majority opinion, but wrote a separate concurring opinion that disagreed with picking through the lower court’s evidence. He also criticized the Supreme Court’s current approach to discrimination in voting maps.

Kagan wrote in her dissent that the majority decision makes it more difficult to fight discrimination and encourages legislators to hide their motivations better.

“The majority’s new evidentiary rule is meant to scuttle gerrymandering cases,” Kagan’s dissent said.

Kagan wrote that the majority gave the benefit of the doubt to the state and established a standard that looks on racial gerrymandering challenges with “suspicion, and indeed derision.”

She also wrote that the justices should not have substituted their own judgment for the factfinding of the lower court.

South Carolina is currently represented by six Republicans and one Democrat. State lawmakers originally asked the court to decide the case before the end of December. The state currently has its primary scheduled for June.

A panel of three lower court judges already said in March that the state could use its old map for the 2024 election.

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