People For the American Way Foundation

Supreme Court Sends Alabama Racial Gerrymandering Case Back to Lower Court

The Supreme Court issued a 5-4 ruling yesterday disagreeing with a lower court that had upheld Alabama's racially gerrymandered state legislative redistricting. The cases are Alabama Democratic Conference v. Alabama and Alabama Legislative Black Caucus v. Alabama.

As we discussed in our Term Preview, the Republican-controlled Alabama legislature enacted a state redistricting plan after the 2010 Census that transferred a significant portion of the black population that had previously been in majority-white districts into districts that were already majority-black, a process some have called bleaching. (This plan was adopted while Alabama was still subject to the preclearance provisions of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, before Shelby County v. Holder.) Ostensibly to comply with the requirement under Section 5 that new lines not lead to a retrogression in the position of racial minorities with respect to their effective exercise of the electoral franchise, legislators decided that the African American percentages in the redrawn majority-minority districts had to be at least whatever they had become before redistricting. So if a district that was (say) 65% African American in 2002 had become 75% African American by 2010, the new lines had to keep the district at least 75% African American.

Because of population shifts over the past decade and a decision to minimize population differences among districts, this policy meant that African Americans in majority-white districts were redistricted into majority- and supermajority-black districts.

The Alabama Legislative Black Caucus and the Alabama Democratic Conference argued that legislators had misinterpreted Section 5, that race was impermissibly the overriding criterion used by legislators in drawing lines, and that the redistricting plan violated the Fourteenth Amendment. But a special three-judge district court had upheld the redistricting, ruling that (1) minimizing population differences among districts, and not race, was the predominant factor in drawing the lines, so strict scrutiny didn't apply; and (2) even if strict scrutiny applied, the boundaries were narrowly tailored to achieve the compelling purpose of compliance with the preclearance provisions of Section 5 (which was in force then).

In an opinion written by Justice Breyer and joined by the other moderates plus Justice Kennedy, the Supreme Court repudiated the lower court, sending the case back so certain districts can be reanalyzed under the proper standards to determine if they are racially discriminatory. They held that Alabama can't avoid an analysis of whether race was the predominant factor by pointing to its desire to have population balance among districts:

[I]f the legislature must place 1,000 or so additional voters in a particular district in order to achieve an equal population goal, the "predominance" question concerns which voters the legislature decides to choose, and specifically whether the legislature predominately uses race as opposed to other, "traditional" factors when doing so.

Another key part of the ruling was the discussion of Section 5, which the Court made clear does not require a covered jurisdiction to maintain a particular numerical minority percentage. Instead, it requires the jurisdiction to maintain a minority's ability to elect a preferred candidate of choice.

The state's Section 5 rationale seemed like a stretch designed to justify a redistricting process that some have called "bleaching." Yesterday's ruling will ensure that no one grasps for that particular straw again in an effort to cover up racial gerrymandering. (This assumes, of course, that Congress eventually restores Section 5's efficacy by adopting a new formula for coverage, since the Roberts Court struck down the existing formula in the infamous 5-4 Shelby County ruling.) The case is also important because the dissent by the four most right-wing Justices, which was only one vote from becoming the majority opinion, would have allowed the Alabama legislature in this case to use race in drawing districts in a way that would harm minority voters.