Supreme Court backs GOP plan in SC that critics say discriminated against Black voters

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WASHINGTON – A divided Supreme Court on Thursday signed off on a South Carolina congressional map that critics − including a lower court − said discriminated against Black voters to make Rep. Nancy Mace's district friendlier to Republicans.

The 6-3 conservative majority said the challengers provided no direct evidence that race was the dominant reason for the boundaries.

“When partisanship and race correlate, it naturally follows that a map that has been gerrymandered to achieve a partisan end can look very similar to a racially gerrymandered map,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the majority.

Writing for the minority, Justice Elena Kagan said the challengers introduced more than enough evidence to show race was improperly a factor.

More: Another controversial flag flew over a home of Supreme Court Justice Alito: New York Times

'Go right ahead': Kagan says decision will embolden other states to discriminate

Kagan said the majority’s decision will embolden other state legislators who “often have an incentive to use race as a proxy to achieve partisan ends.”

“Go right ahead, this Court says to States today,” she wrote in a sharply worded dissent joined by Justices Sonya Sotomayor and Ketanji Brown Jackson.

Justice Clarence Thomas mostly sided with the majority but wrote a separate opinion to argue courts should not be deciding whether a district’s boundaries have been unfairly manipulated along racial lines.

“Drawing political districts is a task for politicians, not federal judges,” Thomas wrote.

President Joe Biden said the decision "undermines the basic principle that voting practices should not discriminate on account of race and that is wrong."

It won't change the map in place for this fall's elections.

In March, a federal appeals court, which had previously ruled the map unconstitutional, said it had no choice but to require it be used this year since the Supreme Court had not issued its opinion after hearing oral arguments in October.

Early voting for South Carolina's June 11 primary starts next week, on Tuesday.

The coastal South Carolina district is held by Mace, one of eight Republicans who voted last year to oust former Speaker Kevin McCarthy.

The decision turned on whether the state’s 2020 redistricting violated the Constitution's equal protection clause by moving about 30,000 Black voters into another district.

Decision follows a surprise Supreme Court ruling

It comes at a moment of uncertainty about redistricting, the once-a-decade process of redrawing congressional districts. Last year, in a surprise ruling, the Supreme Court invalidated a congressional map in Alabama that was also challenged for diluting the Black vote. That case challenged the maps as a violation of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The South Carolina case, by contrast, was challenged on constitutional grounds.

A divided Supreme Court in 2019 took federal courts out of the business of deciding partisan gerrymander lawsuits – holding that the disputes are more political than legal. But voters and groups may still file lawsuits over racial gerrymanders and allege that minority voters are facing discrimination as state lawmakers draw new congressional boundaries.

The problem is that race and political affiliation are often intertwined. South Carolina lawmakers said they were not targeting Black voters, which would be illegal, but were instead moving Democratic voters into a different district, which would be unreviewable by federal courts.

Rep. Nancy Mace (R-SC) arrives for a meeting of the Republican House caucus on Sept. 30, 2023, in Washington, DC. The government is expected to shut down at midnight if the House does not reach a last-minute budget deal on Saturday.
Rep. Nancy Mace (R-SC) arrives for a meeting of the Republican House caucus on Sept. 30, 2023, in Washington, DC. The government is expected to shut down at midnight if the House does not reach a last-minute budget deal on Saturday.

The South Carolina State Conference of the NAACP, which challenged the state’s map along with other groups, said there were signs that mapmakers were focused on race. For example, despite a sharp increase in the number of Black voters in the district, the redrawn map had a nearly identical share of Black voters as the version drawn following the 2010 census.

Critics said that indicated the mapmakers were aiming for a target based on race. After an eight-day trial, a lower federal court last year unanimously agreed.

“The court finds that race was the predominant motivating factor in the…design of” the district, the lower court said.   “Traditional districting principles were subordinated to race.”

The case is Alexander v. NAACP.

Contributing: John Fritze.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Supreme Court sides with South Carolina over racial gerrymander claim