U.S. Supreme Court throws out SC racial gerrymandering ruling

(File/Al Drago/Getty Images)

A federal court “clearly erred” in determining that South Carolina legislators racially gerrymandered congressional voting lines to keep the coastal 1st District red, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Thursday in sending the case back to the three-judge panel for further analysis on a separate question.

Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the majority, repeatedly used the terms “clearly erred” and “clearly erroneous” in rejecting the lower court’s reasoning for its 2023 ruling that the lines were unconstitutionally drawn.

“To sum up our analysis so far, no direct evidence supports the District Court’s finding that race predominated in the design of District 1,” Alito wrote, further calling the lower court’s approach “seriously misguided.”

Advocates for the plaintiffs decried the ruling, saying the high court broke its own precedent by ignoring the lower court’s findings and made future challenges for racial discrimination more difficult.

In this redistricting case, the question was whether the GOP-controlled Legislature based its admittedly partisan aim on voters’ race as they moved precincts between the 1st and 6th districts.

The Legislature’s GOP leaders testified the goal was to make the 1st District safer for a Republican, following a narrow flip to blue in 2018 and a similarly narrow flip back to red in 2020. The staffer who chiefly drew the map said he used political data on precincts that voted Democrat in 2020 to move the lines. Their testimony easily explains the final map, the majority of justices concluded.

The opinion noted the map was drawn with input from U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, the state’s longest-serving congressman and only Democrat, “whose recommendations would have preserved the strong Democratic tilt” in his adjoining 6th District.

The 6th, which has been a majority-minority district since the post-1990-census redistricting, already spanned counties from Columbia to Charleston, while the 1st spanned the state’s southern coastline.

The changes put all of Beaufort and Berkeley counties in the 1st District, as well as more of the Republican parts of Dorchester County. Charleston County was further split between the two districts, with the 6th District given more of West Ashley and the entire peninsula, to include uber expensive homes South of Broad.

In all, 193,000 South Carolinians were moved between the two districts. The final map “achieved the Legislature’s political goal” of increasing the GOP advantage in District 1, as the projected Republican voter share rose 1.4 percentage points to 54.4%, reads the majority ruling.

 Map of South Carolina’s 1st and 6th congressional districts as drawn in 2011. (Screenshot of Figure 1 in the U.S. Supreme Court’s May 23, 2024, ruling.)
Map of South Carolina’s 1st and 6th congressional districts as drawn in 2011. (Screenshot of Figure 1 in the U.S. Supreme Court’s May 23, 2024, ruling.)

“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,” Alito wrote.

Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, whose testimony was cited by justices, contends the 1st District is still politically competitive.

“I said it would have been political malpractice for us to sacrifice the 1st (District),” the Edgefield Republican told reporters Thursday about his testimony. “We were not going to pass a plan that sacrificed the First, but that was all about political calculations. And that was the case because those were the rules the Supreme Court set out.”

Justice Elena Kagan, who wrote the 34-page dissenting opinion, was joined by liberal Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ketanji Brown Jackson, the court’s newest member.

 A map of South Carolina’s 1st and 6th congressional districts as redrawn in 2022. (Screenshot of Figure 2 in the U.S. Supreme Court’s May 23, 2024, ruling.)
A map of South Carolina’s 1st and 6th congressional districts as redrawn in 2022. (Screenshot of Figure 2 in the U.S. Supreme Court’s May 23, 2024, ruling.)

Kagan scoffed at the majority’s reasoning.

“The Challengers introduced more than enough evidence of racial gerrymandering to support the District Court’s judgment,” she wrote. “The majority picks and chooses evidence to its liking; ignores or minimizes less convenient proof; disdains the panel’s judgments about witness credibility; and makes a series of mistakes about expert opinions.”

Map makers obviously used data on race to achieve the desired Republican tilt, she wrote, pointing to the percentage of Black residents 18 and older in the 1st District. Despite all the precinct moves, “the district’s racial balance did not budge.”

The Black voting-age population in the district went from 16.6% to 16.7%. Such a constant would not have been possible without the use of racial data, she wrote.

The case will return to the lower court to re-evaluate challengers’ separate claim of the redrawn lines diluting the Black vote. Alito said the judges’ ruling on that was tied to the faulty reasoning on racial gerrymandering.

“In light of our conclusion that those findings were clearly erroneous, that conclusion cannot stand,” wrote Alito, who spent several pages of his opinion dismissing Kagan’s criticisms.

Justice Clarence Thomas agreed with most of Alito’s conclusions but wrote a separate opinion disagreeing that any further analysis on voter dilution is needed.

The complaint “combines two stereotypes by assuming that black South Carolinians can be properly represented only by a black Democrat,” Thomas wrote. “The vote dilution analysis in this case inevitably reduces black Charlestonians to partisan pawns and racial tokens. The analysis is demeaning to the courts asked to perform it, to say nothing of the black voters that it stereotypes.”

The three lower court judges — Richard Gergel, Mary Geiger Lewis and Toby Heytens — ruled in January 2023 that state lawmakers drew the coastal 1st District, held by Republican Nancy Mace, in a way that discriminates against Black voters.

The judicial panel sided with the NAACP, ACLU of South Carolina and Taiwan Scott, a Black Hilton Head Island resident who lives in the 1st District, who challenged the new lines following the 2020 census with arguments they violated the Constitution’s 14th and 15th amendments.

“It’s as though we don’t matter, but we do matter, and our voices should be heard,” Scott told reporters after the ruling. “It’s sad to see the decision after, you know, three federal judges ruled we were racially gerrymandered. But we won’t stop.”

The U.S. Supreme Court ruling changes nothing for this year’s elections.

The lower court’s ruling last year put South Carolina’s congressional elections on hold until a new map was drawn. But in late March, the judges reluctantly agreed to let this year’s elections continue as scheduled with the Legislature’s 2022 map, since the nation’s high court had yet to weigh in and candidate filing for the June party primaries was just days from concluding.

In the 1st District, three Republicans, including Mace, and two Democrats are competing in the June 11 primaries. In the 6th District, Clyburn has no primary challenger. Two Republicans are facing off for the opportunity to challenge him in November. But Clyburn, first elected in 1992, is expected to easily win a 17th term.

The chief attorney for the NAACP legal defense fund said the group is still assessing next moves.

“There is a potential avenue for plaintiffs to try to redress the harm of the racially discriminatory map,” Leah Aden, who argued the case before the nation’s high court, told reporters. “But what we will do and what that will look like, I think we are still wrapping our heads around now.”

Officials with the ACLU pledged that the fight will continue.

“Today is a dark day for democracy in South Carolina, but all hope is not lost,” said Jace Woodrum, executive director of the ACLU’s state branch. “For now, the Supreme Court has upheld a racially gerrymandered map, and South Carolina voters are the ones who will suffer the consequences. … We remain committed to ending gerrymandering in our state and will use every tool at our disposal until ‘We the People’ truly means all of us.”

SC Daily Gazette reporters Abraham Kenmore and Skylar Laird contributed to this report. 

The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on South Carolina’s voting lines brought responses from across the political spectrum. Here are some of the differing opinions:

Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Isle of Palms, who led redistricting efforts in the Senate: “I am pleased that the United States Supreme Court agreed with what we have said all along: the First Congressional District map was not racially gerrymandered.”

U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, 6th District: “Today’s U.S. Supreme Court decision in Alexander v. South Carolina State Conference of the NAACP is further affirmation that this Court has chosen to disenfranchise Black voters and rob us of our fundamental access to the ballot box.”

Senate President Thomas Alexander, R-Walhalla: “As I have said throughout this process, our plan was meticulously crafted to comply with statutory and constitutional requirements, and I was completely confident we would prevail. With its decision today, the Supreme Court affirmed the hard work of South Carolina senators and the product they produced as constitutional.”

• Brenda Murphy, president of the NAACP in South Carolina: “Today the Supreme Court has failed the American people, voting rights have taken another gut punch, and the future of democracy in South Carolina is dangling by a thread. Make no mistake, though, we are not backing down from this fight.”

S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster: “The Supreme Court, I think, was clear. I think they examined the question and followed the law. … And I think they made the right decision.”

Janai Nelson, president and director-counsel of the Legal Defense Fund: “The highest court in our land greenlit racial discrimination in South Carolina’s redistricting process, denied Black voters the right to be free from the race-based sorting and sent a message that facts, process, and precedent will not protect the Black vote.”

Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield: “I’m pleased, but it’s what we expected was going to happen. We took a lot of effort and spent a lot of time to make sure we did redistricting the right way, so we felt confident we were going to prevail, and we did.”

• Adriel I. Cepeda Derieux, deputy director of the ACLU Voting Rights Project: “At the end of the day, the Supreme Court essentially says that short of the most flagrant kind of evidence pointing to racial intent — short of someone standing in the public square and saying they’re drawing a racist map — that this Legislature was going to get a pass, and that has never been the law, and it shouldn’t be the law.”

Michael B. Moore, one of two Democrats in the District 1 primary: “Regardless of the congressional map, this race is all about connecting with folks in South Carolina’s coastal communities. … We have a plan to win in November, no matter the playing field, and we’re more confident than ever about our footing in the fight for SC-01.”

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