The Supreme Court has dealt a heavy blow to efforts — often by the Republican Party — to draw legislative districts that pack black voters into majority black legislative districts in order to elect black representatives.
In a case decided today arising out of Alabama state legislative plans, the Supreme Court held that the Voting Rights Act does not require the preservation and protection of legislative districts with percentages of black voters designed to produce black elected officials. Republicans and black politicians often argue that the Voting Rights Act requires line drawers to preserve proportional black representation by creating districts where black candidates are sure to win election. These plans help Republicans by bleaching out surrounding areas helping to elect Republicans.
Instead, the Court ruled that what must be preserved is the “ability to elect” minority preferred candidates of choice — who need not necessarily be minority candidates themselves. This means legislatures can dip below numeric thresholds which create majority black districts, and not necessarily offend the Voting Rights Act.
The opinion is here.
Here is the most important part, from the syllabus:
The District Court’s final alternative holding — that “the [challenged] Districts would satisfy strict scrutiny” — rests upon a misperception of the law. Section 5 does not require a covered jurisdiction to maintain a particular numerical minority percentage. It requires the jurisdiction to maintain a minority’s ability to elect a preferred candidate of choice.
Hence, nobody can claim now that the Voting Rights Act — either Section 5 or Section 2 — requires the packing of black voters into districts forever and ever at the same levels. Legislatures are free to use other alternative means to maintain the ability of minorities to elect candidates of choice. This undermines the argument, frequently used by those seeking to pack, that the Voting Rights Act requires proportionality of representation or black majority enclaves.
This part of the opinion makes it seem the days are gone where redistricting efforts must aim to preserve black faces in legislative bodies at all costs. Preserving a specific minority population percentage is NOT required by the Voting Rights Act, despite years of hearing from some people that it is. From the Court syllabus:
Here, however, the District Court and the legislature both asked the wrong question with respect to narrow tailoring. They asked how to maintain the present minority percentages in majority-minority districts, instead of asking the extent to which they must preserve existing minority percentages in order to maintain the minority’s present ability to elect the candidate of its choice. Because asking the wrong question may well have led to the wrong answer, the Court cannot accept the District Court’s conclusion.
Justice Clarence Thomas dissented on procedural grounds and noted the relationship between the DOJ and racial interest groups:
Long ago, the DOJ and special-interest groups like the ACLU hijacked the Act, and they have been using it ever since to achieve their vision of maximized black electoral strength, often at the expense of the voters they purport to help.
The case will be remanded to decide a number of remaining issues.