Why the Supreme Court's Alabama election map decision was surprising to many

Michael Waldman, president NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice, spoke to ABC News.

June 12, 2023, 4:40 PM

The Supreme Court ruled last week that Alabama's congressional maps, which were redrawn after the 2020 census, violate Section 2 of the landmark Voting Rights Act by diluting the influence of the state's Black voters. Section 2 says that states cannot draw maps that "result in a denial or abridgment of the right to vote on account of race or color."

The 5-4 decision effectively strikes down Alabama's GOP-drawn election map as illegal. Chief Justice John Roberts affirmed a lower court ruling that found Black voters in the state were denied an equal opportunity to select political candidates of their choosing.

"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.

ABC News’ Linsey Davis spoke to Michael Waldman, president and CEO of NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice, about the decision and his new book – “The Super Majority: How the Supreme Court Divided America.”

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

LINSEY DAVIS: So today's decision really surprised many court watchers. Give us your take on what it means and your initial reaction.

WALDMAN: Count me as one of the people who was surprised and very happily surprised. What the court did today was to say that the remaining part of the Voting Rights Act can be used against gerrymandering in a way that affects Black voters and other voters of color and deprives them of effective representation.

It's a big win for those voters. It's a big win for civil rights.

It also reminds us of how important the Supreme Court is and the role it plays in our society over the past decade. The Supreme Court has actually taken a wrecking ball to a lot of the Voting Rights Act, and a lot of that was leading up to this year, where the Supreme Court now has a very conservative six-vote supermajority on most things, marching in lockstep and moving very far to the right.

DAVIS: And we saw, kind of to piggyback on what you're saying, Justices Kavanaugh and Roberts joined the liberals on this one. And that's something that we really haven't seen since the conservatives got the majority. What did you make of their rationale?

WALDMAN: Their rationale was, in a way, the kind of rationale you want judges to have, which was this is precedent. And this was a law passed by Congress, and Congress said this was OK. And interestingly, Roberts himself as a young lawyer, had opposed that law. So he knew that this was a big fight at the time. It's hard to know whether or not this signals some larger openness.

DAVIS: Do you think, by any chance, that this was perhaps in particular we're talking about Justice Roberts, a way to try to recalibrate?

WALDMAN: So Roberts is an interesting figure. He is certainly aware that in the past year, public support for the Supreme Court has collapsed. It's in all the polls. It's at the lowest level it's been ever recorded. And that is because people see the court very often no longer is making real legal decisions, but political decisions. And they're concerned by this idea that nine unelected people with lifetime terms are able to have this much power. So no doubt Roberts is aware of that. It's also interesting that Kavanaugh went along with him.

DAVIS: Your book really talks about the idea of that separation, the increased divide between the American public and the court. And at one point you write, “Every day the court's power grab pushes us closer to a crisis, a catastrophic loss of institutional legitimacy.” How would you argue that that's played out in recent years, and how do you see it playing out going forward?

WALDMAN: Well, those big decisions last year show it. The country is moving in one direction. It's changing. It's growing. It's more diverse than ever before. And the court now, with this very political bloc of conservative justices, is pushing very hard and veering very hard in the other direction.

The Dobbs case is a great example that overturned Roe v. Wade, as you know. That was the first time the Supreme Court had basically withdrawn a fundamental right for American women that they had taken for granted for half a century. And there's been a massive political backlash.

DAVIS: And you mentioned earlier the declining views as far as the public’s look at the court. I want to just be specific. A recent poll found that 59% disapprove of how they handle their job, and an ABC News/Washington Post poll found that 51% of Americans believe the justices decide cases based on their personal political views instead of the law. Do you think that there is a path forward as far as repairing Americans' view of the court?

WALDMAN: Well, I think the only path forward from within the court is for the justices to pull back on making radical rulings – radical in the sense that they rip up settled societal expectations. I think also part of the shift can come from others beyond the court. Congress can respond by passing laws to strengthen the Voting Rights Act. We as a people can pass constitutional amendments. There are state courts that can act, and voters, above all, can demand of their elected officials – Hey, what do you think about the court? What do you think about the Constitution?

DAVIS: When we talk about the ethical issues that have been raised recently, in particular to connection with some financial disclosures with Clarence Thomas, for example. One, I'm curious, do you think that the court should, if you're a justice, that you should just have this lifelong position and nothing you do, regardless of any of your actions, no one can do anything about it? And do you think that’s partially responsible for deteriorating the relationship?

WALDMAN: I think there's no question that the scandal, the corruption alleged about Clarence Thomas – ethics is, “Can I take that cup of coffee?” This is: A right-wing billionaire seems to have subsidized his [Thomas'] lifestyle for years, and he didn't disclose it to the public. I think that definitely is part of the feeling that it's a political body and the loss of trust and legitimacy to the public. My view is nobody is so wise that they should be the judge in their own case. And so the Supreme Court should have a binding code of ethics just like every other court in the country.

DAVIS: I love the academic discussion, Michael Waldman, thank you so much for joining us. And I want to let our viewers know, "The Super Majority: How the Supreme Court Divided America" is now available wherever books are sold.