Court Revives Suit Over Republican-Drawn Alabama Voting Map

A divided U.S. Supreme Court revived a lawsuit by Democrats and black lawmakers who say a Republican-drawn Alabama legislative map unconstitutionally packed too many racial minorities into a handful of districts.

The 5-4 ruling Wednesday is a partial victory for the challengers, setting aside a lower court decision that upheld the district lines. The justices told a three-judge panel to assess whether race played too much of a role in setting the boundaries of particular districts.

The dispute tested how much lawmakers can take race into consideration when they draw legislative district maps. The ruling may affect other litigation, including a fight over a Virginia map recently struck down in the face of similar objections.

The ruling largely tracked the contentions of President Barack Obama’s administration, which argued for a district-by-district assessment. The case split the court along ideological lines, with Justice Anthony Kennedy joining the court’s four Democratic appointees in the majority.

Writing for the majority, Justice Stephen Breyer said the lower court was wrong to uphold the voting lines as being part of an effort to equalize the population among districts. He also faulted the lower court for taking a “mechanically numerical” approach in its analysis.

In dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia said the majority had issued a “sweeping holding.”

Voting Rights

The case flipped the usual dynamics on voting issues. Republicans say they were trying to preserve black majorities and comply with the Voting Rights Act, the landmark 1965 law designed to protect racial minorities. Democrats called that a misuse of the law and an effort to dilute black voting strength elsewhere.

Blacks are among the most reliable Democratic votes, especially in the Deep South where race and party affiliation are all but synonymous.

The maps, which replaced Democratic-drawn lines that had been in force, were drawn with the goal of keeping the same percentage of minority voters in majority-black districts. Alabama said that was a requirement of Section 5, a Voting Rights Act provision that was in force at the time of the redistricting and barred “retrogression” of minority voting strength.

Democrats said the state’s approach created racial quotas that diluted minority voting strength elsewhere.

Republicans pointed to other parts of the Voting Rights Act requiring some districts to have a sufficient number of racial minorities so that black and Hispanic lawmakers can be elected.

Republicans also said their overriding goal was unconnected to race. They say they were trying to equalize the population in voting districts that, under the old map, varied by as much as 10 percent.

Shifting Voters

The maps shifted more than 120,000 black residents into state house districts that already were majority black and more than 105,000 into majority-black state senate districts. Those additions were designed in part to make up for the loss of minority population from those districts.

Section 5 was effectively overturned by the Supreme Court’s Republican-appointed majority in a 5-4 decision in 2013. In addition to barring retrogression, Section 5 required most parts of the South, including Alabama, to get federal approval before changing their voting rules.

In another twist, Obama’s Justice Department reviewed Alabama’s new maps under Section 5 and cleared them to take effect.

The case is Alabama Legislative Black Caucus v. Alabama, 13-895, Alabama Democratic Conference v. Alabama, 13-1138.

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