Supreme Court rules Alabama's congressional maps violate Voting Rights Act

The 5-4 decision is a surprise win for advocates fighting voting discrimination.

June 8, 2023, 1:18 PM

The Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that Alabama's congressional maps, redrawn after the 2020 census, violate Section 2 of the landmark Voting Rights Act by diluting the influence of the state's Black voters.

The 5-4 decision, which effectively strikes down Alabama's GOP-drawn election map as illegal, came as a surprise to most court watchers after a series of rulings in recent years sharply rolled back protections against race discrimination under the law.

Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority, affirmed a lower court ruling that found the existence of only a single majority-Black congressional district denied roughly a quarter of the state's electorate an equal opportunity to select political candidates of their choosing.

Section 2, enacted in 1965 and later amended by Congress, says states cannot draw maps that "result in a denial or abridgment of the right to vote on account of race or color."

"We find Alabama's new approach to Section 2 compelling neither in theory nor in practice," Roberts wrote in an opinion joined by fellow conservative Justice Brett Kavanaugh and the three liberal justices, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Ketanji Brown Jackson.

President Biden said in a statement that the decision "confirms the basic principle that voting practices should not discriminate on account of race," calling on Congress to shore up voting rights protections ahead of the next election.

The U.S. Supreme Court building is seen in Washington, D.C., on April 6, 2023.
Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters, FILE

Roberts acknowledged concerns raised by Alabama Republicans that consideration of race in the drawing of election maps may itself "elevate race in the allocation of political power" but concluded "a faithful application of our precedents and a fair reading of the record before us do not bear them out here."

The decision means Alabama will have to redraw its election maps ahead of the next election, likely to include a second majority-Black district as mandated by a lower court. The new maps will likely mean greater minority representation in the U.S. House of Representatives from Alabama.

"It will certainly have an impact on the diversity of Congress," said Deuel Ross, deputy director of litigation at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund who argued the case challenging Alabama's maps at the Supreme Court. "it's hard to say what the political implications of this are, because minority voters in majority-minority districts elect Democrats and Republicans. So, I don't think that this is a partisan win. It's a win for our democracy, and it's a win for our constitutional rights."

Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Amy Coney Barrett dissented in the case.

"The question presented is whether Section 2 of the Act, as amended, requires the State of Alabama to intentionally redraw its longstanding congressional districts so that black voters can control a number of seats roughly proportional to the black share of the State's population. Section 2 demands no such thing, and, if it did, the Constitution would not permit it," Thomas wrote in his dissent.

Justice Kavanaugh, who has emerged as a key swing vote on the current court, emphasized the importance of stare decisis -- or precedent -- in his vote to strike down Alabama's map.

He said the Supreme Court has long endorsed a standard that judges voting laws and election maps on their effects, not on the intent of the legislators. That requires, he said, "that courts account for the race of voters so as to prevent the cracking or packing -- whether intentional or not -- of large and geographically compact minority populations."

Alabama Republican Party Chairman John Wahl said in a statement that state lawmakers would comply with the high court's decision and redraw the map.

"Regardless of our disagreement with the Court's decision, we are confident the Alabama Legislature will redraw district lines that ensure the people of Alabama are represented by members who share their beliefs, while following the requirements of applicable law," Wahl said.

The plaintiffs in the case, a group of Alabama minority voters, and leading civil rights organizations all hailed the court's ruling.

"This decision is a crucial win against the continued onslaught of attacks on voting rights," said Ross, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund attorney.

"Alabama attempted to rewrite federal law by saying race had no place in redistricting. But because of the state's sordid and well-documented history of racial discrimination, race must be used to remedy that past and ensure communities of color are not boxed out of the electoral process," he said in a statement.

Michael Waldman, president and CEO of the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan voting rights advocacy, said the Supreme Court had more broadly rejuvenated the power of federal anti-discrimination protections.

"The Voting Rights Act is one of the country's most effective civil rights laws. This decision will ensure that voters of color can continue to use Section 2 to assure their equal opportunity to participate in elections, in Alabama and around the country," Waldman said.

Attorney General Merrick Garland also praised the decision and said the Justice Department would continue to challenge state laws that infringe on the right to vote.

"We will continue to use every authority we have left to defend voting rights. But that is not enough. We urge Congress to act to provide the Department with important authorities it needs to protect the voting rights of every American," Garland said in a statement.