Supreme Court considers limits on suffrage law in electoral map dispute

The U.S. Supreme Court engaged in an emotionally charged debate on Tuesday over whether to impose new limits on voting rights law and limit longstanding protections against racial discrimination in drawing up electoral maps.

Several of the court’s conservative justices have shown themselves open to raising the legal bar for map challenges that could deprive a minority group of an equal opportunity to elect preferred candidates.

Judge Samuel Alito suggested that the current standard is so loose that a state can never win. “In practice, in all places in the South, and perhaps in other places,” he said, “won’t plaintiffs always run the table?”

Civil rights groups fear that any tightening of the law will seriously undermine the historic VRA, which the court’s conservative majority has already sharply reduced in a series of recent rulings.

“This is an important law. It is one of the great achievements of American democracy to achieve equal political opportunity regardless of race, to ensure that African Americans can have as much political power as white Americans,” said Judge Elena Kagan, who argued forcefully in his defense.

Evan Milligan, center, a plaintiff in Merrill v. Milligan, an Alabama redistricting case that could have far-reaching effects on minority voting power in the United States, talks to members of the press after oral arguments before the Supreme Court on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, October 4, 2022.

Patrick Semansky/AP

The justices heard nearly two hours of oral argument in Merrill v. Milligan, which is a dispute over congressional maps drawn by Alabama’s Republican-led state legislature in 2021 after the census of 2020.

A group of black residents alleges that the state’s seven new congressional districts — only one of which is majority black — are diluting black vote counts in violation of federal law. Black voters make up about 27% of Alabama’s voting-age population.

US Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar, arguing for Alabama’s redistricting challengers, called the maps “an extreme and atypical case of vote dilution” and cited the state’s long history of racial polarization.

She warned that “nothing would stop Alabama and many other states from dismantling their existing majority-minority precincts, leaving black voters and entire swathes of the country without the ability to elect their preferred representatives,” if the law on the right to vote was restricted.

Alabama has defended its maps as the product of a racially neutral process, arguing that requiring a state to consider race when drawing up districts would itself be racially discriminatory. “The plaintiffs are looking for a racist plan,” Alabama Solicitor General Edmund Lacour told the judges.

A unanimous federal appeals court, including two nominees for former President Donald Trump, sided with black voters last year, ruling that Alabama needed to create a second black-majority district in order to comply to the Voting Rights Act.

“It’s kind of a slam dunk if you just take our precedent as it is, and the three judges below all found that,” Judge Kagan said.

“It’s such a marginal case,” Lacour replied. “It’s hard to draw a second majority-minority district by accident…and it’s hard to do it on purpose.”

A majority of conservative High Court justices earlier in February granted Alabama’s emergency request to block the lower court’s decision pending appeal. That means Alabama’s disputed maps are in place for the 2022 midterm elections.

While Justice Alito seemed the most open to Alabama’s proposed restrictions on the VRA, Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett signaled they might be less inclined to go that far.

PHOTO: Associate Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson stands with Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., before the Supreme Court holds a special sitting for its official investiture ceremony, Sept. 30, 2022, in Washington, D.C. DC

Associate Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson stands with Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., before the Supreme Court holds a special sitting for its formal investiture ceremony, September 30, 2022, in Washington., DC

Fred Schilling/United States Supreme Court Collection

The court’s three liberals, including its newest member, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, have vigorously protested any changes to the status quo.

“We’re talking about a situation where race has already permeated the electoral system. So can you help me understand why you think the world of, you know, race-blind redistricting is really the point of out of this situation?” Judge Jackson asked Lacourt of Alabama.

“It’s to make sure no one gets hurt,” Lacour replied.

Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act requires states to provide minority voters “an equal opportunity to participate in the political process.” Congress changed the law in 1982 to explicitly state that challengers need only show a discriminatory outcome in a new card — not prove the card designer’s bad intention — in order to successfully file a lawsuit.

Jackson argued that the framers of the VRA and the 14th Amendment to the Constitution guaranteeing equal protection of the law to all Americans explicitly considered race because of the nation’s history of slavery and racial discrimination. nation at the time.

“You can’t assume just because race is considered that there’s an equal protection issue,” Jackson told Lacour.

PHOTO: People walk through the plaza of the United States Supreme Court building on the first day of the court's new term in Washington, DC, October 3, 2022.

People walk through the plaza of the United States Supreme Court building on the first day of the court’s new term in Washington, DC, October 3, 2022.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

“The purpose of the amendment was to secure the rights of former freed slaves,” Jackson continued. “I don’t think the historical records establish that the founders believed racial neutrality or racial blindness was necessary.”

Lacour responded that the 14th Amendment is “a prohibition on discriminatory state action, not an obligation to engage in affirmative discrimination in favor of certain groups”.

The court is expected to issue its decision in the case sometime next year.

A ruling in Alabama’s favor could give states more freedom in crafting their electoral maps and potentially dampen the influence of minority voters with less chance for them to seek redress in court.

ABC News

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