WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday reinstated a voting map for congressional elections in Alabama that a lower court had said violated the Voting Rights Act by diluting the power of Black voters to elect their chosen candidates.
The vote was 5 to 4, with Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. joining the court’s three liberal members in dissent.
The Supreme Court’s brief order, which included no reasoning, was provisional, staying a lower court’s decision while the case moves forward. The justices said they would hear Alabama’s appeal of the lower court’s ruling, but they did not say when.
If the court follows its usual practices, it will schedule arguments for the fall, making it likely that the 2022 election is conducted using the challenged map.
The court’s eventual ruling could clarify and perhaps further limit the reach of the Voting Rights Act.
In a concurring opinion, Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, joined by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., said “the stay order does not make or signal any change to voting rights law.” It was necessary, he wrote, because the lower court had acted too soon before a coming election.
“When an election is close at hand, the rules of the road must be clear and settled,” Justice Kavanaugh wrote. “Late judicial tinkering with election laws can lead to disruption and to unanticipated and unfair consequences for candidates, political parties and voters, among others.”
What to Know About Redistricting and Gerrymandering
- Redistricting, Explained: Answers to your most pressing questions about the process that is reshaping American politics.
- Understand Gerrymandering: Can you gerrymander your party to power? Try to draw your own districts in this imaginary state.
- Killing Competition: The number of competitive districts is dropping, as both parties use redistricting to draw themselves into safe seats.
- New York: Democrats’ aggressive reconfiguration of the state’s congressional map is one of the most consequential in the nation.
- Legal Battles: State supreme courts in North Carolina and Ohio struck down maps drawn by Republicans, while the U.S. Supreme Court temporarily restored Alabama’s map.
“It is one thing for a state on its own to toy with its election laws close to a state’s elections,” he wrote. “But it is quite another thing for a federal court to swoop in and redo a state’s election laws in the period close to an election.”
In dissent, Chief Justice Roberts said the court was right to hear the appeal. But he said it should not have granted a stay.
In a separate dissent, Justice Elena Kagan said the majority had gone badly astray.
“It does a disservice to the district court, which meticulously applied this court’s longstanding voting-rights precedent,” she wrote. “And most of all, 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.”
Justices Stephen G. Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor joined Justice Kagan’s dissent.
In earlier decisions, the Supreme Court effectively gutted Section 5 of the law, which had required federal approval of changes to state and local voting laws in parts of the country with a history of racial discrimination, and cut back on Section 2 of the law, limiting the ability of minority groups to challenge voting restrictions.
The Alabama case also concerns Section 2, but in the context of redistricting.
Section 2 bars any voting procedure that “results in a denial or abridgment of the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race.” That happens, the provision goes on, when, “based on the totality of circumstances,” racial minorities “have less opportunity than other members of the electorate to participate in the political process and to elect representatives of their choice.”
In November, Alabama’s Legislature, which is controlled by Republicans, redrew the state’s seven-district congressional map to take account of the 2020 census. It maintained a single district in which Black voters make up a majority.
That district has long elected a Democrat, while the state’s other six districts are represented by Republicans.
After the map was challenged by Black voters and advocacy groups, a unanimous three-judge panel of the Federal District Court in Birmingham ruled last month that the Legislature should have fashioned a second district “in which Black voters either comprise a voting-age majority or something quite close to it.”
How U.S. Redistricting Works
What is redistricting? It’s the redrawing of the boundaries of congressional and state legislative districts. It happens every 10 years, after the census, to reflect changes in population.
Why is it important this year? With an extremely slim Democratic margin in the House of Representatives, simply redrawing maps in a few key states could determine control of Congress in 2022.
How does it work? The census dictates how many seats in Congress each state will get. Mapmakers then work to ensure that a state’s districts all have roughly the same number of residents, to ensure equal representation in the House.
Who draws the new maps? Each state has its own process. Eleven states leave the mapmaking to an outside panel. But most — 39 states — have state lawmakers draw the new maps for Congress.
If state legislators can draw their own districts, won’t they be biased? Yes. Partisan mapmakers often move district lines — subtly or egregiously — to cluster voters in a way that advances a political goal. This is called gerrymandering.
What is gerrymandering? It refers to the intentional distortion of district maps to give one party an advantage. While all districts must have roughly the same population, mapmakers can make subjective decisions to create a partisan tilt.
Is gerrymandering legal? Yes and no. In 2019, the Supreme Court ruled that the federal courts have no role to play in blocking partisan gerrymanders. However, the court left intact parts of the Voting Rights Act that prohibit racial or ethnic gerrymandering.
Want to know more about redistricting and gerrymandering? Times reporters answer your most pressing questions here.
The unsigned decision was joined by Judge Stanley Marcus, who ordinarily sits on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, in Atlanta, and was appointed by President Bill Clinton; and by Judges Anna M. Manasco and Terry F. Moorer, both appointed by President Donald J. Trump.
The panel found that Black people in Alabama make up 27 percent of the voting-age population, that voting in the state is racially polarized and that it would be possible to draw “a second reasonably configured district” to allow Black voters to elect their favored candidates.
The panel ordered the Legislature to submit new maps by Feb. 11 and said it would appoint an independent expert to do so if the deadline was not met. Primary elections are scheduled for May.
Alabama officials asked the Supreme Court for an emergency stay. They said that the panel’s ruling would result in “massive disruption” of the state’s elections and that “Alabamians will suffer the constitutional harm of being assigned to racially segregated districts.”
“It will result,” they wrote, “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.” The panel’s ruling, they added, “is premised on the noxious idea that redistricting begins and ends with racial considerations.”
In response, lawyers for Greater Birmingham Ministries, the Alabama State Conference of the N.A.A.C.P. and several voters said there was ample time and no risk of confusion.
“The primary is still over four months away, and the election itself over 10 months away,” they wrote. “No election has ever been held under the challenged plan — so there is no risk of voter confusion.”
In a separate response, lawyers for a second set of voters said that “granting a stay would do a severe disservice to the public interest by rendering unlawful plans functionally immune from challenge during the first election of a redistricting cycle,” signaling to states “that they get a free pass on their plans so long as they delay enactment until it is too late for courts to provide relief.”