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Supreme Court Rejects Ruling That Upheld Alabama's Gerrymandering

The U.S. Supreme Court called a district court ruling that upheld Alabama's redistricting plan, which overloaded some districts with black Democrats, "legally erroneous." In a 5-to-4 ruling, the justices rejected the ruling and sent it back to the lower court.

Justice Steven Breyer, who delivered the opinion, was joined by the court's other liberals, Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, as well as Justice Anthony Kennedy, the swing vote. The court's conservatives — Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas — dissented. Thomas wrote a separate dissent.

As NPR's Nina Totenberg reported last November, the high court was asked to decide "whether a 2010 state legislative redistricting in Alabama overloaded some districts with black Democrats on the basis of race or party."

Here's the background on the case, from Nina's story:

"In 2000, Democrats controlled the state Legislature, and the redistricting process. They used their power to create districts with black majorities under the Voting Rights Act, while at the same time putting enough reliably Democratic black voters into majority white districts so that white Democratic candidates could build black-white coalitions and have a chance of winning.

"By 2010, Republicans controlled the Legislature, and they set about consolidating the black vote into existing majority-black districts. Under the plan, about one-sixth of all eligible black voters were moved from majority white state Senate districts to majority-black districts. The result was that in some of those districts, the black majority increased to over 70 percent. At the same time, the majority white districts got whiter, and more safely Republican.

"The redistricting came after the 2010 census showed population shifts that made some existing districts way too big in population terms, and others too small. The Republicans tried to equalize the size of the districts. They also tried to maintain the same number of majority-black districts, [contending] that under the Voting Rights Act, a simple majority of black voters in those districts was not enough. ...

"Democrats disagree and contend that the GOP plan calls for unconstitutional racial quotas."

According to The Associated Press, Justice Breyer said the lower court "should have reviewed claims of racial gerrymandering on a district-by-district level, not just statewide. He also said the court didn't apply the right test when it found that race wasn't the primary motivating factor."

The news service adds:

"State officials say they had no choice but to concentrate black voters in some districts, making neighboring seats more white and apt to elect Republicans."