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

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The U.S. Supreme Court is seen on March 25, 2022. (Photo by Quentin Young/Colorado Newsline)

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A federal court “clearly erred” in determining that South Carolina legislators racially gerrymandered congressional voting lines to keep the coastal First 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 First and Sixtth districts.

The Legislature’s GOP leaders testified that the goal was to make the First 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 Democratic 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 Sixth District.

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

The changes put all of Beaufort and Berkeley counties in the First District, as well as more of the Republican parts of Dorchester County. Charleston County was further split between the two districts, with the Sixth 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.

“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.

‘Political malpractice’

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

“I said it would have been political malpractice for us to sacrifice the First [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.

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 First 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 T,oby Heytens — ruled in January 2023 that state lawmakers drew the coastal First 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 First District, who challenged the new lines following the 2020 census with arguments they violated the Constitution’s Fourteenth and Fifteenth 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 First District, three Republicans, including Mace, and two Democrats are competing in the June 11 primaries. In the Sixth 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 seventeenth term.

Next steps

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.”

This story first appeared in the South Carolina Daily Gazette, an affiliate of the Phoenix through the nonprofit States Newsroom network. Reporters Abraham Kenmore and Skylar Laird contributed. 

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