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Supreme Court ruling makes it harder to bring racial gerrymandering claims

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

In an important voting rights case today, the Supreme Court made it far more difficult to challenge state redistricting plans as unconstitutional racial gerrymanders. The court upheld a redistricting map drawn by the South Carolina legislature. A lower court had found that map resulted in, quote, "the bleaching of African American voters from a district." The vote was 6 to 3 along ideological lines. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: At issue in the case was the way the Republican-dominated South Carolina legislature drew new lines for congressional districts after the 2020 census. The problem it faced was how to equalize the number of voters in each district. Specifically, Congressional District 1 had 88,000 too many voters, and the adjoining Congressional District 6, represented by the state's only Black member of Congress, had lost almost the same number of voters. In the end, the legislature moved some 200,000 Black voters into new districts and chopped up Charleston County, stripping from CD1 much of the city of Charleston and ending the city's 120-year history as the anchor for the district. Republicans denied exiling Black voters, maintaining they were simply seeking to transform a marginal Republican district into a safe district for the GOP.

The South Carolina NAACP challenged the redistricting in court, and a three-judge federal district court, after extensive fact-finding, ruled that the new map was not just a partisan gerrymander but an unconstitutional racial gerrymander. The Supreme Court did not agree, and it did something highly unusual. The justices themselves reexamined the facts, reaching diametrically different conclusions. Writing for the court's six conservatives, Justice Samuel Alito said the map achieved the GOP's political goals and nothing more. UCLA election law expert, Rick Hasen, observes this is the third time in the last few years in which Justice Alito has written majority opinions limiting voting rights.

RICK HASEN: Justice Alito has been the one who has really been the leader in weakening protections for minority voters.

TOTENBERG: NYU law professor, Richard Pildes, contends that the problem here is bigger than the intricacies of this and other cases, mainly in the South, where Black and white voters are highly polarized, and their voting patterns strongly correlate with race. The problem as he sees it is that the court in 2019 ruled that federal courts have no role to play in policing even extreme partisan gerrymandering. So now partisan gerrymandering is perfectly legal, but racial gerrymandering is not.

RICHARD PILDES: It can be very hard in these cases to sort out whether people are being moved as part of a political gerrymander or part of a racial gerrymander.

TOTENBERG: Faced with that difficulty, the court's conservative majority today imposed some stringent new limits on racial gerrymandering claims. One is that the courts must assume the good faith of the legislature, even though redistricting is avowedly partisan. And two, the court raised the bar for the kinds of evidence that plaintiffs must present in order to prevail.

Dissenting were the court's three liberals. Writing for them, Justice Elena Kagan said that, quote, "in every way, the majority today stacks the deck against the challengers. When racial classifications in voting are the issue, the majority says every doubt must be resolved in favor of the state legislature." And so Kagan concluded, "this odious practice of sorting citizens by race will continue in the electoral sphere, especially where ugly patterns of pervasive racial discrimination have so long governed. We should demand better of ourselves, of our political representatives and, most of all, of this court."

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

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.