Richard Wolf, USA Today, March 25, 2015
A deeply divided Supreme Court dealt a blow Wednesday to a Republican redistricting plan in Alabama that packed black voters into urban districts to dilute their impact elsewhere.
By a 5-4 vote and over the vigorous objection of its lone black member, the justices upheld the objections raised by Democratic and black lawmakers and sent the case back for further review by a lower court.
The decision represented a legal reversal of sorts from earlier decades, when the federal government forced mostly Southern states to create what are considered “majority-minority” districts more likely to elect black lawmakers. Now, the justices are saying it may be illegal to have too many blacks clustered in one district, at the expense of others.
“Given that it is 2015, this decision may not have much impact on post-Census 2010 redistrictings, but it will be an important precedent for the next wave of redistrictings,” said Jon Greenbaum, chief counsel at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
A federal district court had upheld maps drawn by Alabama’s Republican state Legislature in 2012 that maintained or increased the percentages of black voters in black lawmakers’ districts–even though, as the challengers claimed, such high percentages were not needed.
But Justice Stephen Breyer, explaining his opinion from the bench, said “simply maintaining percentages in an effort to prevent retrogression . . . is too mechanical an approach.” He was joined by Justices Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.
A provision of the Voting Rights Act that, ironically, has since been rendered obsolete by the Supreme Court “does not require maintaining the same population percentages in majority-minority districts as in the prior plan,” Breyer wrote. “Rather, (the law) is satisfied if minority voters retain the ability to elect their preferred candidates.”
The majority opinion drew angry, 13-page dissents from Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, the court’s only black justice. Scalia, joined by Thomas, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito, called it “a sweeping holding that will have profound implications for the constitutional ideal of one person, one vote.”
Thomas’ separate dissent disparagingly said the case represents “nothing more than a fight over the ‘best’ racial quota.”
“Long ago, the Department of Justice and special-interest groups like the American Civil Liberties Union hijacked the (Voting Rights 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,” Thomas said.