Race and voting once again appeared to badly divide the U.S. Supreme Court as it struggled on Wednesday over what to do with an Alabama legislative redistricting plan challenged as an unconstitutional racial gerrymander. The justices heard expanded arguments in two consolidated cases in which the Alabama Legislative Black Caucus and the Alabama Democratic Conference contend that the Republican-led Legislature packed black voters into districts in which minority voters already comprised a majority to make other districts more white and Republican. Under Supreme Court voting rights decisions, state lawmakers cross a constitutional line if race is the predominant motive in their redistricting plans. And the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — before a high court ruling last year — prohibited so-called covered states, including Alabama, from drawing plans that impede minority voters’ ability to elect candidates of their choice. The combination of both directives, Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. said, requires legislatures to “hit the sweet spot” between using some race in redistricting but not too much. Some justices appeared sympathetic to Alabama’s argument that it was attempting to comply with the Voting Rights Act and other requirements for drawing constitutional lines. Others said the number of black voters shifted into majority-black districts told a very different story. And some suggested the case ought to be sent back to the district court to determine the motive behind each legislative district.
A three-judge district court panel, in a 2-1 decision, upheld the Alabama plan after finding that the Legislature’s primary motive was not racial, but to keep population disparities among the districts within 2 percent. The panel majority also held that the Legislature was correct at the time in believing that Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act required it to maintain the same number of majority-black districts as in the last redistricting plan, and the relatively same percentage of black voters in those districts. (Section 5 is no longer operable following the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County, Ala. v. Holder, striking down the formula establishing which states must get voting changes approved by the Department of Justice or the federal court in Washington.)
Because some of the majority-black districts lost population between the 2000 and 2010 census, the legislators, to keep to their 2 percent population deviation rule, moved large numbers of black citizens into existing majority-black districts — about 120,000 into majority-black state House districts and 106,000 into majority-black Senate districts.
Full Article: ‘Sweet Spot’ Elusive in Voting Case | National Law Journal.