WASHINGTON — In a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court cleared the way Monday for Alabama to use its new congressional district map even though a lower court said it violated the Voting Rights Act by denying Black voters a new district.
The court granted a request from Alabama Republicans to put a hold on the lower court ruling.
The case — the first to reach the Supreme Court involving the redrawing of political boundaries with 2020 census results — could affect redistricting in other states that gained minority populations.
The Supreme Court also said it would hear Alabama’s challenge to the lower court ruling that declared the maps void. That appeal is not likely to be heard until the court’s new term begins in the fall. As a practical matter, the court’s action allows Alabama Republicans to use their map for this year’s elections.
In explaining the court's decision, Justice Brett Kavanaugh said it was too close to the election to undo the Alabama Legislature's maps.
"Late judicial tinkering with election laws can lead to disruption and to unanticipated and unfair consequences for candidates, political parties, and voters, among others," Kavanaugh wrote.
Chief Justice John Roberts joined with the three liberal justices in saying the Supreme Court should not have put the lower court ruling on hold. Roberts, in a separate dissent, said the lower court's ruling should control the 2022 election and that after that the Supreme Court should hold a full hearing on the merits of the issue that would control future elections.
Writing separately for herself and Justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor, Justice Elena Kagan said the court went “badly wrong in granting a stay.” Accepting Alabama’s contentions, she said, “would rewrite decades of this court’s precedents” about the protections of the Voting Rights Act.
"It does a disservice to Black Alabamians who under that precedent have had their electoral power diminished — in violation of a law this Court once knew to buttress all of American democracy," she wrote.
In past years, the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 required states with histories of racial discrimination to seek permission from the Justice Department or federal courts before new political maps could take effect. But the Supreme Court did away with that requirement in 2013.
This year’s round of redistricting is underway with no obligation for states to seek pre-clearance. In the past, they had to justify their changes in advance, but new boundaries will now take effect unless the courts block them in response to lawsuits.
The 2020 census showed Alabama's Black population rising by about 4 percent, while the white population dropped by about 2 percent. Blacks account for just over a quarter of the state’s total population but have a voting majority in only one of its seven congressional districts.
In drawing Alabama’s new map, the Republican-controlled Legislature maintained a single district in which Black voters are the majority — the 7th, which includes Birmingham and several counties along the state’s western border. In response to lawsuits, a panel of three federal judges said the map should add a second district “in which Black voters comprise a voting-age majority or something quite close to it.”
The panel, made up of a judge appointed by Bill Clinton and two appointed by Donald Trump, said Black voters had less opportunity to elect the candidates of their choice to Congress.
An emergency application to the Supreme Court filed by Alabama Republican officials said drawing two minority districts would actually force the state to violate federal law.
“It will result in a map that can be drawn only by placing race first above race-neutral districting criteria, sorting and splitting voters across the state on the basis of race alone," they said.
They urged the court to act quickly, with absentee voting set to begin in just over two months and in-person voting to follow on May 24.
“Any eleventh hour change to a state’s existing districts would require reassignment of hundreds of thousands of voters,” they said.