Election Law

Supreme Court restores Louisiana voting map with majority-Black district

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The Supreme Court building

The Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C. (File photo by Kent Nishimura for the Washington Post)

The Supreme Court restored a congressional voting map in Louisiana on Wednesday that includes an additional majority-Black district, handing a victory to African American voters and Democrats less than six months before the November election.

The order was in response to emergency appeals filed after a federal three-judge panel in the state threw out the recently redrawn map last month, ruling that it was an unconstitutional racial gerrymander.

That decision left the state without a congressional voting map heading into a 2024 contest that will determine which party controls the narrowly divided House. The Supreme Court’s move removes the cloud of uncertainty that had been lingering over the election, with statewide Republican leaders saying they welcomed the clarity.

The ruling was also celebrated by civil and voting rights advocates. “It’s the right outcome for Black voters in the state of Louisiana,” said Stuart Naifeh, an attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund who represents Black voters in the case.

The politics of Wednesday’s decision appeared unusual, with conservatives on the court in favor of reinstating the map with two Black-majority districts. The three liberal justices—Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Ketanji Brown Jackson—noted their opposition to the majority’s unsigned decision. Sotomayor and Kagan did not explain their reasoning, but Jackson wrote separately to say the court’s intervention was premature.

That view reflects a broader concern among the court’s liberals about the conservative majority’s instinct to prevent changes to redistricting plans and voting policies several months before an election. In her dissent, Jackson suggested the court had more time to sort out the case and determine the right map for the state.

Jackson wrote that the “question of how to elect representatives consistent with our shared commitment to racial equality is among the most consequential we face as a democracy,” but she objected to the Supreme Court getting involved now.

Courts generally don’t like to change maps or rules close to an election because they want to avoid confusing voters as well as give election officials the time they need to prepare. But the justices have not spelled out precisely when that principle should be invoked, and Wednesday’s decision showed that its conservatives and liberals differ on the specifics.

Louisiana officials had said they needed to know by Wednesday what map was in effect so that they could properly run the election. The court gave them a decision just in time.

“We will continue to defend the law and are grateful the Supreme Court granted the stay which will ensure we have a stable election season,” Louisiana Attorney General Liz Murrill (R) said in a statement.

Wednesday’s ruling was on the narrow issue of what map should be used for this election. It will allow appeals to continue and could decide whether the map with two majority-Black districts should be used for elections in 2026 and beyond.

Paul Hurd, an attorney for the voters who challenged the map with two majority-Black districts, said he was confident the Supreme Court would eventually strike it down, even if it can be used this fall.

“The state of Louisiana enacted a brutal racial gerrymander that segregates its voters based on their race,” he said in a statement. “Louisiana politicians passed the law at the last minute, lost in court, and then cynically ran out the clock on a replacement map.”

Ashley Shelton, president of the Power Coalition for Equity and Justice, a community organizing group, praised the decision.

“While we know this case will continue, we are heartened by the fact that injustice won’t be served on Black voters once again in these 2024 elections,” she said in a statement. “Today marks a battle won.”

Louisiana’s redistricting fight began after the 2020 Census, when Republicans who control the legislature drew new congressional districts to account for population changes. Under their plan, one of the state’s six districts had a Black majority even though African American voters make up about a third of the electorate.

Black voters sued, and a federal judge and appeals court determined the map probably violated the Voting Rights Act by diluting the power of African American voters. In response, the legislature approved a new map this year that created a second majority-Black district that greatly favors Democrats and that stretches diagonally across the state from Shreveport to Baton Rouge.

Soon afterward, a group of self-described “non-African American voters” sued in a different federal court and argued that the new map was a racial gerrymander that violated the equal protection clause of the Constitution. A special judicial panel agreed in a 2-1 ruling last month that barred the state from using the map.

With time running out before the election, the African American voters who brought the initial lawsuit and attorneys for the state argued that the Supreme Court should put the judicial panel’s decision on hold and allow Louisiana to use the map with two majority-Black districts this fall.

The case is one of the challenges against electoral maps across the South that arose following the 2020 Census. Separately, the Supreme Court is also considering a challenge to a South Carolina congressional voting map that a lower court found “exiled” thousands of Black voters. A decision in that case is expected by the end of June, though the slow pace of the case prompted the lower court—a three-judge federal panel—to rule that the state had to use the disputed map this year no matter how the Supreme Court ruled.

Last year, the Supreme Court barred Alabama from using a new congressional map that it found diluted the power of Black voters. Louisiana’s redistricting litigation was paused while the Supreme Court considered the Alabama case, and because of the delay, Louisiana was required in 2022 to use a voting map that a judge had already determined probably violated the Voting Rights Act.

The second majority-Black district that Louisiana’s legislature drew this year greatly favors Democrats and puts Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.) in political danger. State Sen. Cleo Fields, a Black Democrat and a former congressman, is among those running in the district.

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