The Supreme Court on Monday waded once more into the high-stakes battle over congressional redistricting—but the decision doesn’t seem to be the partisan power grab that it is being portrayed as.
In a 5–4 ruling, the justices issued a temporary stay that blocked a lower federal court from ordering Alabama to redraw its new congressional districts on the grounds that the map disadvantaged minority voters. The Supreme Court said it would consider the case merits later, but the immediate result of Monday’s decision is that Alabama’s district will be used as drawn by state legislators in the year’s midterm elections.
Five of six high court justices appointed by Republicans were included in the majority of the decision (Chief Justice John Roberts the exception). This ruling instantly sparked a storm of criticism from court observers who believed that conservative jurists wanted to favor Republicans. This is yet another blow to the Voting rights Act, which will most likely keep Alabama’s racist gerrymander.” wroteMark Joseph Stern is the staff writer. Slate, You can follow us @Twitter. Later, he calledThe ruling was “catastrophic”. claimedIt is difficult to emphasize how illegal the Supreme Court order is. The Supreme Court just screwed Black Alabama voters,” how CNN framedA segment about the decision. It’s obvious that the majority of media outlets covered this story as a win for Republicans.
Perhaps that is all true. But it’s not clear how the actual text supports these overheated opinions. This decision has at least two reasons not to be overreacted to.
The Supreme Court is unlikely to have the final word in this matter. On Monday, both the Supreme Court and Alabama justices indicated that they would like to look more closely at Alabama’s district system as well the conflicting claims over whether there should be two major-minority districts in the state, which was what the lower federal courts had determined.
The court did not release a majority opinion, as is the case with such simple orders. Justice Brett Kavanaugh, however, authored a concurring view to show why the court stayed the lower court’s ruling. It is important to note that he does not rule out a review. He wrote that the stay order did not signal or make any changes to voting rights laws. The District Court injunction was not stopped by the stay order, which is no ruling on its merits. In the meantime, a decision on merits will be made.” (Emphasis added in the original.
Kavanaugh says the problem is about timing. Kavanaugh notes there’s a long-standing precedent that says federal courts shouldn’t intervene in state election dispute proceedings immediately before an election. Alabama’s May 24 congressional primary elections will see the first round of voting. However, candidates can start submitting petitions next month to be on the November ballot. The Supreme Court won’t have enough time to hear the merits of the petitions, or to draw any new districts maps (if needed).
The high court must balance the two sets of potential harms without having enough time to do a thorough review. One, the possibility of unfairly disadvantaged black voters in Alabama by holding an election on district lines. The potential danger of candidates and voters not knowing what district lines are during the period leading to an election is another.
It is not an ideal scenario. And allegations of racial gerrymandering ought to be taken seriously—a key part of the Voting Rights Act is specifically meant to prevent states from drawing districts to disenfranchise black voters, as voting rights advocates say Alabama has done.
The case against Alabama’s newly created districts is not clear. The map that was approved by the state legislature would show there to be six likely Republican districts and one majority-black, likely Democratic district. Your opinion on this split is likely to depend on your political views. But the key question in the federal suit is whether Alabama’s state legislature (which has about 27.5% of its population being black) should have to draw a new majority-minority area.
Advocates for that outcome have a good point about how the 7th district is “packed” with black voters—it includes Birmingham and much of the state’s rural “Black Belt”—in such a way that might dilute the black vote in other districts. However, the strongest argument against forced district redrawing is that Alabama’s current map appears almost exactly the same as the one used from 2011-2013. The new map is almost identical to that used for the decade preceding it.
Certainly, it’s possible that the longstanding status quo of a single majority-minority district is a racist gerrymander—or that it violates the Voting Rights Act. This is not clear.
Andy Craig (staff writer, who writes about voting rights for libertarian Cato Institute) says that “The Voting Right Act claim against Alabama wasn’t that strong.” There are reasons. Although it is theoretically possible, and not at all feasible to draw a second majority black district, this would be impossible if other criteria such compactness or traditional criteria are ignored.
These are the same tricky questions—what matters more, the race of voters or the compactness of a district—that are poorly suited to courtrooms even when there is time for a full hearing of the issues.
It was, however, not Republican state legislators that took drastic action as the media has reported. It was Federal district courtOn the day of the election, the Supreme Court overturned a map not significantly different to the ones used for every previous congressional election. These maps were they also racially discriminatory? If they were, then why didn’t the maps get challenged?
The possibility that the federal district court is right is certainly possible. A full Supreme Court hearing will be held to confirm this.
The Supreme Court is, however, in an awkward spot. By It is not The justices issued a stay on Monday of the lower court’s ruling. This would have meant that they were signalling that all federal courts could substitute any of their judgments for the redistricting authority in each state before the midterms. The Supreme Court’s vote in this case was likely due to that second reason.
Supreme Court precedent is clear in its skepticism about substituting state authority with federal judicial power in redistricting cases. The court’s most recent ruling regarding gerrymandering ruled that federal courts had limited authority in such disputes. Roberts stated in 2019 that “excessive political partisanship when districting results in results that reasonably appear unjust.” Roberts stated that “excessive partisanship in districting leads to results that reasonably seem unjust,” but that it does not mean the federal judiciary has the answer. The Voting Rights Act gives federal judges greater authority over claims of racism gerrymandering. However, Monday’s stay does not change the court’s long history of deferring the state legislatures’ legitimate (if self-serving), power in drawing districts.
Stern, and other critics of Monday’s decision should desire this. Imagine what might happen if Republican-friendly federal judges could substitute their judgment on how congressional districts should be designed.
All of it could be a smokescreen. If you want to believe that the Supreme Court is chiefly concerned with throwing elections to Republicans, then maybe you can convince yourself that Kavanaugh’s concern about the timing of the Alabama primary election is a convenient excuse and that the Supreme Court’s decadeslong skepticism about wading into gerrymandering issues was a clever ploy meant to provide cover to the GOP in exactly this situation—just so Republicans can win six congressional seats in Alabama this year instead of five. Perhaps that’s what the grand plan is.
Or maybe we should take the justices at their word and wait to see what happens when the Supreme Court revisits this topic in more detail—something that both Kavanaugh and Roberts, in his dissenting opinion, said it likely would—before hyperventilating about the “lawless” court.