WASHINGTON, Feb 8 (Reuters) – When three federal judges last month blocked the new Republican-backed U.S. congressional district map of Alabama as likely to discriminate against black voters, they said that they were applying an “established law” and that the result was not even close.
An increasingly conservative US Supreme Court disagreed. Judges froze lower court ruling and allowed Alabama to use disputed U.S. House of Representatives seven-district map for Nov. 8 midterm elections in which Republicans seek to resume control of Congress to President Joe Biden’s Democratic colleagues.
Monday’s 5-4 decision signals another potential weakening of the suffrage law. The landmark 1965 federal law has been used for decades to counter racially-biased actions in voting and the drawing of electoral districts, including those intended to dilute the weight of black and Hispanic voters and maximize the power of white voters. .
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The Supreme Court’s action on Monday challenged decades of precedent requiring states to create majority black districts “where it is geographically possible to do so, and where racially polarized voting conditions prevail,” the court said. electoral law expert Ned Foley of Moritz College of Ohio State University. Law.
The court will hear Alabama’s arguments in the case this fall. The eventual ruling, expected by the end of June 2023, could make it harder for courts to consider race when determining whether an electoral district map violates a provision called Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. which prohibits voting practices that result in racial discrimination, legal experts said.
“If the court accepted Alabama’s argument, that would be the end of Section 2 as we know it,” said Nicholas Stephanopoulos, a Harvard Law School professor and redistricting expert.
“It would become much more difficult for plaintiffs to win Section 2 cases, and states could eliminate many existing minority opportunity districts without breaking the law,” Stephanopoulos said, referring to districts in which minorities have a better chance of electing legislators of their choice.
The Supreme Court has pared back the Voting Rights Act, starting with a 2013 decision striking down a key piece that determined which states with a history of racial discrimination needed federal approval to change election laws. In a 2021 ruling approving Republican-backed voting restrictions in Arizona, judges made it harder to prove violations under Section 2.
The 435-seat House districts are reconfigured every decade to reflect national population changes. The latest redistribution follows the 2020 census.
Republicans have said consideration of race in drawing up electoral maps should be limited. Democrats have accused Republicans of exploiting majorities in state legislatures to design electoral maps that reduce the power of black voters and other minorities, who tend to support Democratic candidates.
The Alabama case is one of two major race-related disputes the Supreme Court, with its 6-3 conservative majority, is already set to hear in its next term. The other gives conservative justices a chance to end affirmative action policies used by colleges and universities to increase their numbers of black and Hispanic students. This all comes as Biden prepares to appoint the first black woman to serve on the Supreme Court, to replace incumbent liberal Justice Stephen Breyer.
Challengers in Alabama – including two groups of black voters and the Alabama civil rights organization NAACP – argue that the Republican legislature designed the map to confine the power of black voters to a single district, even if the population of the state is 27% black.
Lower court judges agreed, finding that under Supreme Court precedent, an additional constituency where black voters constitute or near a majority would be justified based on their population and geographic proximity, between other factors.
Alabama said its legislature adopted a map that used “race-neutral” criteria and that the lower court’s reparations order would itself be racially discriminatory. Alabama said Section 2 was not intended to give minorities a “race-first” electoral advantage.
State Attorney General Steve Marshall, a Republican, said the lower court order “would have unconstitutionally divided Alabamians based on their race” while dividing “long-recognized communities centered on the unique economy and culture of the Gulf Coast”.
Jason Torchinsky, a Republican election expert, said the Supreme Court now has the opportunity to bring much-needed clarity to the redistricting process. Torchinsky noted that “in many places across the country, we don’t see the kind of racially polarized voting that we saw 50 years ago.”
Chief Justice Roberts, breaking with the five other conservatives on the court, joined the three liberal justices in their dissent on Monday.
In her dissent, liberal Judge Elena Kagan rejected Alabama’s claim that the lower court improperly prioritized race in favoring the challengers. Kagan wrote that the Supreme Court’s own test formulated in 1986 for assessing racial bias in electoral maps requires lower courts to consider race when deciding whether a minority group can constitute the majority in a newly drawn district.
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Reporting by Andrew Chung and Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham and Scott Malone
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