DemDaily: Supreme Court Upholds Voting Rights Act Foundation

June 13, 2023

In a surprise 5-4 decision last Thursday, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) ruled in favor of Black voters in an Alabama congressional redistricting case that tested the strength of the last vestiges of the 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA).

The outcome has significant ramifications for other state redistricting and voting rights cases and, ultimately, control of the US House.

Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 provides that the right to vote “shall not be denied or abridged ... on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Amendments to the Act have gradually eroded its protections, leaving Section 2 as its core foundation.

The Case
In Allen v. Milligan centers on a challenge to Alabama's reapportioned map of congressional districts (HB1), drawn and passed by the Republican state legislature in 2021 following the decennial US Census.

Alabama's seven congressional districts have had roughly the same boundaries for the last three decades, with just one majority-minority district. In drawing the new map, the legislature took into account shifts in population numbers, but not in racial diversity, which showed that African American voter representation had increased to 27% of the electorate.

Multiple groups filed lawsuits, arguing the new districts violated Section 2 of the VRA, and the equal protections under the Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, by packing Black voters into a single district in central Alabama known as the “Black Belt,” while diluting the votes of the rest of the state’s Black residents by reapportioning them into other districts.

Accordingly, plaintiffs sought the creation of a second majority-minority district.

In January 2022, a three-judge district court, including with two Trump appointees, agreed with the plantiffs, holding the Alabama plan violated the VRA.

The state immediately appealed to the US Supreme Court, where five conservative justices, in February 2022, stayed the lower-court ruling from going forward and agreed to hear the case (granted certiorari).

SCOTUS heard oral arguments in October 2022 and delivered their opinion June 8, 2023.

In the interim, the Supreme Court allowed the challenged Alabama map to be used in the November 2022 elections, providing victories to six Republicans, and one Democrat in the single majority-minority district.

The Decision
Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Brett Kavanaugh, both conservatives, aligned with the court’s liberals -- Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and Ketanji Brown Jackson -- in affirming the district court's ruling that Alabama's Republican-drawn congressional map violated Black voters' rights.

In a 34-page opinion for the majority, Justice Roberts wrote that the lower court had correctly applied the Supreme Court’s 1986 decision in Thornburg v. Gingles, which outlines a three-part test to evaluate claims brought under Section 2 of the VRA, to reach its conclusion that the new map violated the VRA.

Perhaps more significantly, the high court declined to adopt a new interpretation of Section 2 that would have made it much more difficult to challenge discriminatory redistricting plans already underway in the states.

According to Democracy Docket, there are 31 cases in ten states related to violations of Article 2 of the VRA, and where courts have been awaiting the outcome of the decision in Allen v. Milligan to proceed.

At a minimum, as a result of Milligan, new maps are likely to be drawn in Alabama and Louisiana that could allow Democratic-leaning Black voters to elect their preferred candidates in two more congressional districts. With Republicans' narrow four-seat majority, that alone could be a game changer in the 2024 elections.

“We are grateful that the Supreme Court upheld what we knew to be true: that everyone deserves to have their vote matter and their voice heard. Today is a win for democracy and freedom not just in Alabama but across the United States.” - Evan Milligan, Lead Plaintiff

The Milligan ruling is one of a series of consequential decisions being rolled out as the Supreme Court ends its term and prepares to recess next month for the Summer.

DemDaily: Distrust in Justice 4/27/23
DemDaily: Supreme Court Stays Abortion Pill 4/24/23
DemDaily: The Fight Over Right To Work 3/27/23
DemDaily: The Right To Strike 1/12/23

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Kimberly Scott

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Sources: Justia, SCOTUSBlog, DemocracyDocket, ProPublica

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