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In a surprise decision, the Supreme Court reaffirmed the 1965 Voting Rights Act


Today, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Alabama violated the Voting Rights Act by failing to draw a second majority-Black congressional district. Alabama's population is 27% Black. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: By a 5-4 vote, a coalition of conservative and liberal justices reaffirmed the court's 1986 precedent interpreting how legislative districts must be drawn under the landmark Voting Rights Act as amended in 1982. The court said that in Alabama, a state where there are seven congressional seats and 1 in 4 voters is Black, the Republican-dominated state legislature had denied African American voters a reasonable chance to elect a second representative of their choice.

The decision was a surprise in light of the conservative court's prior decisions gutting other major provisions in the voting rights law. Chief Justice Roberts, who authored or joined those earlier decisions, today wrote for the court majority to preserve the way the voting rights law has been applied for nearly 40 years in redistricting cases. UCLA law professor Richard Hasen has written extensively about election law.

RICHARD HASEN: Given this court's recent record on the Voting Rights Act, this is welcome and surprising.

TOTENBERG: At issue in the case was Alabama's congressional redistricting plan adopted after the 2020 census. The Republican-dominated legislature drew new district lines that packed large numbers of Black voters into one congressional district and then spread out the remaining Black population in other districts so that Black voters had little chance of electing a second representative of their choice in a racially polarized state.

A three-judge district court that included two Trump-appointed judges found that the state legislature's plan amounted to an illegal racial gerrymander under the Voting Rights Act. And today, the Supreme Court agreed.

We see no reason to disturb the district court's careful findings, wrote Chief Justice Roberts. The Alabama legislature's approach to redistricting, he added, was an attempt to remake our jurisprudence anew and was wrong in both theory and practice. Again, Professor Hasen.

HASEN: What's left of the Voting Rights Act is what was left before the court took this case, which is that minority voters have a fighting chance to get fair representation as Congress told them they could get in 1982. So it's preserving the status quo.

TOTENBERG: University of Iowa election law expert Derek Mueller agrees, noting that a contrary ruling would have gutted the last remaining pillar of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act, undoing decades of settled law.

DEREK MUELLER: That also sort of speaks to Chief Justice Roberts' approach to saying, look, we're not going to rock the boat. This is not something new.

TOTENBERG: But NYU's Richard Pildes notes that there is one thing new in the opinion - something that he says may, at first blush, be missed.

RICHARD PILDES: I think the decision is more than just an affirmation of the status quo because this whole case is based on new technological developments that make it easier to find potential Voting Rights Act districts. With this technology, you know, as this case demonstrated, plaintiffs can find potential VRA districts in a way that would have been much more difficult 10 years ago, even.

TOTENBERG: Indeed, it was the new technology of computer-generated districts, based on traditional criteria like compactness and keeping counties together, that produced the second majority-Black district in Alabama - a district that now will likely result in a second Black member of Congress from Alabama and possibly a second Democrat to boot. Joining the chief justice in the majority today were fellow conservative Brett Kavanaugh and the court's three liberal justices.

Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the principal dissent - a 47-page exegesis reiterating his long-held position that the court was dividing the nation into racially segregated districts. Roberts, in his majority opinion, acknowledged that concern, noting that it's not new, but he said that today's decision simply holds that a faithful application of our precedents and a fair reading of the record before us do not bear them out here.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Nina Totenberg
Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.