Supreme Court approves South Carolina congressional map previously found to dilute Black voting power

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The Supreme Court upheld a pro-Republican South Carolina congressional map Thursday, rejecting the argument raised by civil rights groups that lawmakers impermissibly used race as a proxy to bolster the GOP’s chances.

But the high court also said that the civil rights groups that challenged the maps could continue to pursue one part of their claim, a move that will likely delay the battle over the districts for months.

With state election deadlines approaching, a federal court in March had already ruled that South Carolina could use the contested map in this year’s election.

The decision was 6-3 along conservative-liberal lines.

“The circumstantial evidence falls far short of showing that race, not partisan preferences, drove the districting process, and none of the expert reports offered by the Challengers provides any significant support for their position,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote in the majority opinion.

The Supreme Court has previously said that it will not review partisan gerrymanders – that is, maps intended to give one party an advantage over the other. In creating those advantages, however, mapmakers are barred from relying predominately on race as they move voters from one district to another. The challenge is that race and party affiliation sometimes align, and so it can be difficult to disentangle one from the other.

“The dispute between the Democratic and Republican appointees in this case is a technical one, but one with massive legal consequences,” said Steve Vladeck, CNN Supreme Court analyst and professor at the University of Texas School of Law. “Here, the conservative justices effectively substituted their judgment about what actually happened for that of the district court – which could have consequences far beyond the specific context of racial gerrymandering cases.”

Scathing Kagan dissent for liberals

Liberal Justice Elena Kagan wrote in a lengthy dissent joined by the other two liberals arguing that the majority will give state lawmakers and mapmakers “an incentive to use race as a proxy to achieve partisan ends.”

“Go right ahead, this Court says to States today. Go ahead, though you have no recognized justification for using race, such as to comply with statutes ensuring equal voting rights,” Kagan wrote. “Go ahead, though you are (at best) using race as a short-cut to bring about partisan gains – to elect more Republicans in one case, more Democrats in another.”

She continued: “In the electoral sphere especially, where ‘ugly patterns of pervasive racial discrimination’ have so long governed, we should demand better – of ourselves, of our political representatives, and most of all of this Court.”

Thomas says courts should stop reviewing gerrymandering claims

Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a concurrence questioning whether federal courts should be policing racial gerrymanders in the first place.

That would be a dramatic departure from the way federal courts have reviewed redistricting claims for decades, making it far harder for minority voters to challenge racial gerrymanders.

“In my view, the Court has no power to decide these types of claims,” Thomas wrote.

“Drawing political districts is a task for politicians, not federal judges. There are no judicially manageable standards for resolving claims about districting, and, regardless, the Constitution commits those issues exclusively to the political branches,” he wrote.

Thomas pointed to a 2019 Supreme Court ruling that ended federal judicial review of partisan gerrymanders and suggested that the same logic of that opinion applied to racial gerrymandering cases.

Both types of disputes, Thomas wrote, require courts “to address an issue – congressional districting – that is textually committed to a coordinate political department, Congress.”

“A system in which only specialized experts can discern the existence of a constitutional injury is intolerable, and strongly suggests that the racial gerrymandering injury is not amenable to judicial resolution,” he said.

Razor-thin GOP majority at risk

The litigation over South Carolina’s maps was one of several high-profile redistricting cases to make its way up to the Supreme Court following the 2020 census and the once-a-decade redrawing of congressional districts to account for changes in population. Last year, a 5-4 majority ordered Alabama to redraw its congressional map after groups argued it violated the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965. A separate but related redistricting case from Louisiana is still working its way through federal courts.

Republicans currently hold a razor-thin majority in the US House of Representatives and the outcome of similar legal skirmishes could help determine which party controls the House when the new Congress convenes next year. In Alabama, the new maps could yield a Democratic pickup. New maps in Georgia and North Carolina, by contrast, either preserve or bolster chances for the GOP.

In South Carolina, the district at issue was drawn in 2020 to benefit the GOP. The NAACP South Carolina State Conference and a Black voter named Taiwan Scott said the use of race dominated the decision-making process and that the state worked to intentionally dilute the power of Black voters. A federal court agreed, referring to the revised map as a “bleaching.”

Although the coastal district consistently elected Republicans from 1980 to 2016, a Democrat was elected in 2018 in a political upset.

Two years later, Republican Rep. Nancy Mace captured the seat in a tight race. When state lawmakers began considering new congressional maps in 2021, the Republican majorities sought to create a stronger GOP tilt in the district. Republicans currently hold six of the state’s seven districts.

After an eight-day trial featuring 42 witnesses and 652 exhibits, a three-judge district court panel last year held that the South Carolina map amounted to an unconstitutional racial gerrymander in violation of the equal protection clause because race was the predominant factor in the redistricting.

South Carolina Republicans, led by state Senate President Thomas Alexander, appealed the decision to the Supreme Court early last year, arguing in part that the maps had been drawn with politics – not race – in mind.

An issue that repeatedly came up in the case was why the plaintiffs who challenged the map didn’t provide an alternative map to show that the new districts could have achieved the same partisan goals without having such a significant impact on race.

“We have repeatedly observed that an alternative map of this sort can go a long way toward helping plaintiffs disentangle race and politics,” Alito wrote. “An alternative map can perform the critical task of distinguishing between racial and political motivations when race and partisanship are closely entwined.”

This story has been updated with additional details.

CNN’s Fredreka Schouten contributed to this report.

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