SCOTUS rings in Black History Month by keeping racist Alabama district lines
Supreme Court building, Washington D.C. | Jacquelyn Martin/AP

WASHINGTON—As Black History Month gets underway, civil rights advocates, national and local, blasted the U.S. Supreme Court’s five-person majority for reinstating Alabama’s congressional redistricting plan which drastically shortchanged the state’s Black voters.

The 5-4 decision on Feb. 7, with Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor and Stephen Breyer dissenting, revived the GOP-gerrymandered state legislature’s map. That map features one weirdly drawn majority-Black district, linking, with its tentacle-like configuration, Black communities in Birmingham and Montgomery. It leaves the other six districts majority white and Republican, drowning the influence of other Black voters.

Almost 27% of Alabamians are Black, and the dissenting justices, as well as the civil rights groups, flatly said the legislature’s remap violates what’s left of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The groups argued, and lower courts agreed, the VRA means Black Alabamians should have the right to vie for two seats.

The state has a decades-long history of Jim Crow bans on Black voting, followed by racial voting polarization: Blacks vote Democratic and the state’s 69% white majority votes Republican.

Worse, the decision came during Black History month, and just after the anniversary of Rosa Parks’ birth. Parks’s refusal to sit in the back of the bus in Montgomery in 1956, of course, touched off the year-long bus boycott there—and the modern civil rights movement.

The three Donald Trump-named Supreme Court justices voted for the legislature’s map, as did right-wing Justice Clarence Thomas, the court’s sole Black justice. Three U.S. District Court judges, two of them named by Trump, unanimously tossed the legislature’s map and substituted one with two Black-dominated districts.

“The SCt turns its back on voting rights–again!” tweeted Wade Henderson, Executive Director of the Leadership Conference for Civil and Human Rights. “It reinstated a congressional map that blatantly dilutes the power of Black voters, as Congress turns a blind eye on the need for the #JLVRAA. This really is Jim Crow 2.0.”

The JLVRAA is the House-passed John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, named for the late civil rights crusader and Democratic congressman from Atlanta. It would restore the Voting Rights Act’s enforcement powers, stripped by the GOP-named five-person majority, then including Roberts, in 2013.

“For folks that are concerned about the Voting Rights Act, today’s SCOTUS decision means the canary in the coal mine just died,” State Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa and the state party chair, tweeted. “If there were ever a time for Congress to act on voting rights legislation, now would be it. Make no mistake, this is not a good outcome.

“Tonight, we will feel the sorrow that comes from watching our forebears’ hard-won work be wiped out with a stroke of a pen from the shadows. But tomorrow is a new day with new possibilities. And we’ll fight, work and organize to regain voting rights for Americans of all colors,” England vowed.

“The decision does no justice for Black voters in Alabama but we will continue the fight along with @ACLUAlabama @NAACPLDF” and many others, including individual Black voters, tweeted Davin Rosborough of the state NAACP, one of two organizations which sued in lower courts to overturn the state legislature’s map.

The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the civil rights group’s legal arm, quoted one of the Black voters, Evan Milligan, as vowing to continue the battle for fair and equal representation, too.

Milligan called that fight “a winding road, generations long.” He added: “During a month set aside to honor Black American history, we are reminded of the strength and dignity displayed by our ancestors who routinely confronted a wide variety of disappointments.

“We won’t dishonor their legacy by putting down the torch they have handed to us. We will continue striving to ensure our legislature honors the Voting Rights Act and that Black Alabamians have an opportunity to elect a candidate of their choice.”

Attorneys for both the LDF and the Alabama branch of the ACLU pointed out the High Court majority’s ruling isn’t the end of the road Milligan mentioned The map the jurists OKd is in effect only for 2022, they noted, with the case continuing—and probably headed for the Supreme Court again—on the merits.

But the majority, in its order, said there was too little time left between now and the state primary for the legislature to draw a new and legal map. Instead, it tossed the court-drawn two-district map and removed a hold on the legislature’s one-district discriminatory map.

The attorneys for LDF and the ACLU also disputed the majority’s  “too little time” excuse. LDF Senior Counsel Deuel Ross called the majority’s ruling “disheartening.”

“The facts are clear: Alabama’s current congressional map violates the Voting Rights Act. The litigation will continue, and we are confident Black Alabamians will eventually have the congressional map they deserve–one that fairly represents all voters,” Ross added.

Alabama ACLU Legal Director Tish Gotell Faulks declared the state’s people “shouldn’t have to vote on a map in 2022 that we know is unfair, but we look forward to vindicating our claims at trial as the case continues in federal court.”

That prospect also set off a dispute on the High Court bench, with the four dissenters saying the court should have left the lower court’s temporary, two-district map in place, by approving that panel’s hold on the legislature’s discriminatory map, while the case on the merits gets hashed out in lower courts.

“After considering a massive factual record, developed over seven days of testimony, and reviewing more than 1,000 pages of briefing, a three-judge District Court held that Alabama’s redistricting plan violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA),” Kagan explained in a dissent Breyer and Sotomayor joined. Roberts wrote his own dissent.

“The District Court found the plan unlawfully diluted the votes of the state’s Black population, and ordered the state to devise a new plan for the 2022 elections,” Kagan added. It didn’t, and the judges appointed special masters to help them draw the replacement map.

“Accepting Alabama’s contentions would rewrite decades of this court’s precedent about…the VRA,” she continued. “For that reason, this court goes badly wrong in granting a stay” and upholding the legislature’s one-Black-district map, even if it’s just for 2022.

“There may—or may not—be a basis for revising our VRA precedent in light of the modern districting technology that Alabama’s application highlights. But such a change can properly happen only after full briefing and argument, not based on the scanty review this court gives matters on its shadow docket. The District Court here did everything right under the law existing today. Staying its decision forces Black Alabamians to suffer what under that law is clear vote dilution. I again dissent from a ruling that undermines Section 2 and the right it provides.”


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.