The Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision Thursday to uphold a lower court finding that the GOP-drawn Alabama congressional map violated the Voting Rights Act (VRA), marking a departure from decades of rulings shrinking the scope of the law.
Chief Justice John Roberts was joined by fellow conservative Brett Kavanaugh and the court’s three liberal justice in the majority, requiring the Alabama state legislature to redraw the map to add an additional black-majority district in accordance with the Voting Rights Act, according to the Wall Street Journal. Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, and Amy Coney Barrett dissented.
Alabama’s current 7-seat congressional map is represented by six Republicans and one Democrat, according to CNN. Many challengers of the map contend that the state is racially gerrymandered, packing black voters into the 7th congressional district to reduce the impact of their votes in other districts.
Many progressives were initially concerned that the court would further gut the VRA in its decision, with Roberts himself joining the court’s majority in the 2013 decision Shelby v. Holder, which struck down parts of sections four and five of the Voting Rights Act that required that states with a history of discrimination to clear their maps with the federal government before they went into effect.
Section two of the Voting Rights Act was cleared by the majority decision, with Roberts writing, “It simply holds that a faithful application of our precedents and a fair reading of the record before us do not bear them out here.” Alabama’s argument “runs headlong into our precedent.”
“A district is not equally open, in other words, when minority voters face – unlike their majority peers – bloc voting along racial lines, arising against the backdrop of substantial racial discrimination within the State, that renders a minority vote unequal to a vote by a nonminority voter.”
Justice Neil Gorsuch penned a rebuke of the court’s decision, calling out the majority’s “flawed understanding” of past precedent. “Today’s decision unnecessarily sets the VRA on a perilous and unfortunate path.”
Clarence Thomas concurred with Gorsuch, claiming that the VRA should not apply to redistricting, “At the outset, I would resolve these cases in a way that would not require the Federal Judiciary to decide the correct racial apportionment of Alabama’s congressional seats.” Thomas added that he believed the VRA instead focused “on ballot access and counting.”
Further in his dissent, Thomas wrote that even if the VRA did apply to redistricting, Alabama should have won the case. “Indeed, any benchmark other than a race-neutral one would render the vote dilution inquiry fundamentally circular, allowing courts to conclude that a districting plan ‘dilutes’ a minority’s voting strength on account of race’ merely because it does not measure up to an ideal already defined in racial terms,” Thomas’ dissent said.