A panel of skeptical federal judges Tuesday questioned a state lawyer on whether voter race was the predominant consideration when Republican lawmakers drew at least some of Alabama’s new legislative districts. The three-judge panel asked the state to explain why certain districts were drawn the way they were, with at least two judges suggesting that they saw problems with some of the lines. Voter race could be a factor in the decision-making, but couldn’t be the sole concern, judges and lawyers said. “I think there are some districts where you have a problem,” U.S. Circuit Judge Bill Pryor, a former state attorney general, said during questioning. The judges heard oral arguments after the U.S Supreme Court sent the case back for additional review. The Legislative Black Caucus and the Alabama Democratic Conference challenged the districts, saying lawmakers illegal sorted voters by race, packing black voters into designated minority districts and limiting their ability to influence elections elsewhere.
Alabama Solicitor General Andrew Brasher told the court state lawmakers followed traditional redistricting principles including linking communities of interest and voting patterns in drawing the lines.
The panel put tough questions to both sides during the two hours of arguments. While they asked the state to explain certain decisions, they also challenged plaintiffs if they could come up with a better plan while keeping districts roughly the same size and following other redistricting principles such as protecting incumbents and limiting county splits. “To me, that is the $64,000 dollar question … can you do it?” Pryor said. Plaintiff attorneys replied they could have something done in a few weeks if needed.
The new districts were the first drawn after Republican lawmakers won a majority in the Alabama Legislature. They were first used in the 2014 elections and will be used again in 2018 unless they are tossed by the court.