Supreme Court denies Alabama's bid to use GOP-drawn congressional map

Washington — The Supreme Court on Tuesday declined requests by Alabama officials to use a congressional map drawn by GOP state lawmakers in July for upcoming elections, leaving in force a lower court decision that blocked the district lines because they likely ran afoul of federal law.

The court denied a pair of requests for emergency relief that were sought by the state. There were no noted dissents. The orders from the high court means that work on a new congressional map by a special master appointed by a federal district court will continue.

"Alabama's open defiance of the Voting Rights Act stops today," said Abha Khanna, a lawyer who represented a group of Alabamians challenging the redrawn plan, in a statement.

Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall said in response to the Supreme Court's decision that the state will be "encumbered with a racially gerrymandered, court-drawn map for the 2024 election cycle" and continued to defend the new voting bounds draw by GOP state lawmakers this summer. Still, he said the state will comply with the district court's order blocking the new map.

"There should be nothing more offensive to the people of our great state than to be sidelines in 2023 by a view of Alabama that is stuck in 1963," Marshall said in a statement. "This racial agenda is pressed by left-wing activists, not just in Alabama, but in any Republican state where it might advantage Democrats."

The filings from Alabama Republicans again sought the Supreme Court's intervention in the long-running dispute over the state's congressional map. State officials asked the justices last year for emergency relief in the fight that arose from the redistricting process. In its last term, the court heard arguments over whether the GOP-drawn congressional bounds violated the Voting Rights Act.

The fight over Alabama's congressional map

In June, a divided high court unexpectedly upheld a lower court ruling that invalidated the voting lines for the state's seven congressional districts that were crafted by Republicans lawmakers after the 2020 Census because it likely violated Section 2 of the landmark voting law. In that lower court decision, state lawmakers were ordered to redraw the congressional map to include a second district that gave Black voters equal opportunity to elect their favored candidate, as required by the Voting Rights Act.

Following the Supreme Court's decision, Alabama lawmakers reconvened in July to enact a new congressional redistricting plan, which again included a single majority-Black district. Black Alabamians make up 27% of the state's voting age population. State officials said the map was drawn to minimize county splits, including in the so-called Black Belt, a rural region named for its fertile soil, and adhere to traditional principles of redistricting.

But the voting bounds were again swiftly challenged by voting rights groups, and a three-judge district court panel blocked the 2023 map from being used in next year's elections. That court found it likely violated Section 2 because it did not include a second congressional district where Black voters would have the opportunity to elect a representative of their choice.

The district court appointed a special master to draft a remedial map. In its decision, the judges wrote they were "deeply troubled" that the state enacted a map that it admitted didn't provide a remedy for the likely Voting Rights Act violation.

Noting that the map drawn by Alabama Republicans in July increased the portion of Black voters in a second district from about 30% to nearly 40%, the district court said that was "insufficient to give Black voters a fair and reasonable opportunity to elect a representative of their choice: it will either never happen, or it will happen so very rarely that it cannot fairly be described as realistic, let alone reasonable."

Alabama officials turned to the Supreme Court again in mid-September and asked the high court to halt the district court's order, which would keep in place the lines drawn by GOP state lawmakers. They asked the justices to issue a stay by early October so state officials and candidates will know whether the map crafted by the state legislature will govern the 2024 elections. Alabama's primary elections are set for March 5.

An order pausing the district court's ruling "serves the public interest by preserving the opportunity for the legislatively enacted 2023 Plan to be used in the upcoming election, rather than a court-drawn, race-segregated plan," Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall wrote in the request for emergency relief. He said that without a stay from the Supreme Court, "the state will have no meaningful opportunity to appeal before the 2023 Plan is replaced by a court-drawn map that no state could constitutionally enact."

But a group of voters and civil rights groups, who brought the challenges to the original map crafted in 2021 and district lines redrawn in July, accused state officials of "unabashedly" trying to defy the district court and Supreme Court by deeming the new congressional voting lines sufficient.

Alabama's secretary of state and lawmakers "are free to make whatever arguments they wish to the special master  about their preferred redistricting criteria for formulating the final remedial map," the challengers to the district lines told the Supreme Court. "What the secretary cannot do is pretend this motion is something other than what it is: a request to defy this court's decision by implementing a 'remedy' that cures nothing and prevents Black voters from having an opportunity to elect candidates of their choice in a second congressional district."

The outcome of the redistricting fight playing out in Alabama, when coupled with others ongoing in the South, could be critical in the 2024 midterm elections, when Democrats will be fighting to wrest control of the chamber from Republicans. The GOP currently holds a slim majority of seats in the House.

Former Attorney General Eric Holder, chairman of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, cheered the Supreme Court's decision as a victory for all Americans, and especially voters of color.

"Even with this court's landmark decision to uphold Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, Alabama Republicans have defied court orders at every turn by refusing to enact a map that gives Black Alabamians the opportunity to elect a candidate of their choice in two districts," he said in a statement. "These shameful, odious efforts to diminish the rightful voting power of Black Alabamians have finally been defeated. As a result, we will see more representative maps in places that were once thought to be unreachable in the fight for fairness: Alabama, Louisiana, and Georgia. Justice has prevailed."

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