U.S. Supreme Court

In 'stunning development,' Supreme Court rules Alabama election map violates Voting Rights Act

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Outline of Alabama superimposed with a Vote graphic similar to the stickers election workers give out

Image from Shutterstock.

The U.S. Supreme Court has struck down a congressional voting map that dilutes Black voting strength in Alabama, stating that it would “decline to recast” its caselaw as urged by the state.

The Alabama voting map gave Black voters the power to elect their preferred candidate in only one of seven redrawn districts—despite making up 27% of the state’s population.

The Supreme Court’s June 8 decision upholds a finding by a three-judge panel that the Alabama map violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. The law prohibits states from imposing standards, procedures or practices “in a manner which results in a denial or abridgement of the right of any citizen … to vote on account of race or color.”

The Supreme Court majority rejected Alabama’s argument that Congress can address only purposeful discrimination in voting practices under the 15th Amendment and not practices that are discriminatory in effect.

Chief Justice John Roberts’ opinion overturning the map was joined in full by Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Ketanji Brown Jackson and mostly joined by Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

The Washington Post called the June 8 decision a “surprise” that “bucked the court’s recent trend of decisions that weakened provisions” of the Voting Rights Act. The Election Law Blog called the decision “an absolutely stunning development.”

The ABA had argued that the Alabama map violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act in an amicus brief.

Alabama had urged the Supreme Court to adopt its “race-neutral benchmark” theory.

The state contended that map drawing should be done this way: Computers can be used to design maps based on traditional districting criteria without consideration of race.

“The mapmaker can determine how many majority-minority districts exist in each map and can then calculate the median or average number of majority-minority districts in the entire multimillion-map set,” the Supreme Court said in its description of the theory.

If the number of majority-minority districts in the state’s map is similar to the median or average number of those districts, the state argued, there is no denial of the right to vote on account of race. The Supreme Court rejected that test.

“We find Alabama’s new approach to Section 2 compelling neither in theory nor in practice,” Roberts wrote. “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.”

Kavanaugh did not join a section of Roberts’ opinion addressing dissenters’ views of the 1986 decision in Thornburg v. Gingles.

ABA President Deborah Enix-Ross issued a statement after the Supreme Court ruling.

“The American Bar Association applauds the Supreme Court’s decision that agrees with the association’s amicus brief ruling in favor of upholding Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act in the case of Merrill v. Milligan,” Enix-Ross said.

“Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act was designed to prevent voting practices that discriminate based on race. It is a key means of ensuring that all Americans have an equal opportunity to exercise the fundamental right to vote. The ABA argued that Alabama’s proposed redistricting framework in this case would threaten to eviscerate Section 2 and undermine equality in voting nationwide, causing lasting harm to minority voting rights, democracy and the rule of law. The court agreed with the ABA’s arguments and the district court’s decision that Alabama’s redistricting map likely violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.

“The ABA has a special responsibility for ensuring protection of constitutional rights, fostering the rule of law and promoting full and equal access to our nation’s electoral processes. We are pleased that the court agreed with our position in this case,” Enix-Ross added.

The case, formerly known as Merrill v. Milligan, is now called Allen v. Milligan. It was consolidated with the case now known as Allen v. Caster.

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