25 March 2015

Law in Plain English: Alabama Redistricting Cases

This is one in a series of posts designed to describe court decisions in plain English. For more detail and background on the legal issues, see the link to the case below. For similar posts, click here.

SCOTUSblogAlabama Legislative Black Caucus v. Alabama (consolidated with Alabama Democratic Conference v. Alabama)

Argument: Nov 12 2014 (Aud.)

Background: After the 2000 Census, the Democrat-controlled Legislature in Alabama adopted districts that favored its partisan interests. When Republicans challenged the district lines adopted after the 2000 Census, they targeted the systematic underpopulation of the majority-black districts, but State officials and Democratic leaders successfully defended the population deviations as “the product of the Democratic Legislators’ partisan political objective to design Senate and House plans that would preserve their respective Democratic majorities.” The partisan gerrymander that protected Democratic control of the Legislature collapsed in 2010 when Republicans gained supermajority control of both houses of the Legislature, which then adopted new redistricting acts based on the 2010 Census. The Republican-controlled Legislature adopted district lines with smaller deviations in population equality, which upended the partisan gerrymander adopted by the Democrat-controlled Legislature after the 2000 Census. The Alabama Legislative Black Caucus alleged that the purpose and effect of the new districts is to dilute and isolate the strength of black voters, in violation of section 2 of the Voting Rights Act and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. The Alabama Democratic Conference alleged that the purpose and effect of the new districts is to dilute the opportunities for minority voters to participate in the political process and that the new districts are products of racial gerrymandering. A three-judge panel for the Middle District of Alabama dismissed the claims of the plaintiffs and ruled in favor of the state, finding that he plaintiffs failed to provide sufficient evidence of vote dilution, invidious discrimination, or racial gerrymandering. 

Issue: The questions before the Court are (1) whether Alabama's legislative redistricting plans unconstitutionally classify black voters by race by intentionally packing them in districts designed to maintain supermajority percentages produced when 2010 census data are applied to the 2001 majority-black districts; and (2) whether Alabama’s effort to redraw the lines of each majority-black district to have the same black population as it would have using 2010 census data as applied to the former district lines, when combined with the state's new goal of significantly reducing population deviation among districts, amounted to an unconstitutional racial quota and racial gerrymandering that is subject to strict scrutiny and that was not justified by the putative interest of complying with the non-retrogression aspect of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act; and whether these plaintiffs have standing to bring such a constitutional claim.

Holding: In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the District Court’s analysis of the racial gerrymandering claim as referring to the State “as a whole,” rather than district-by-district, was legally erroneous; that the District Court also erred in deciding that the Conference lacked standing; and that the District Court also did not properly calculate “predominance” in its alternative holding that “[r]ace was not the predominant motivating factor” in the creation of any of the challenged districts. Finally, the Court concluded that the District Court’s final alternative holding—that “the [challenged] Districts would satisfy strict scrutiny”—rests upon a misperception of the law. Section 5 does not require a covered jurisdiction to maintain a particular numerical minority percentage. It requires the jurisdiction to maintain a minority’s ability to elect a preferred candidate of choice. The Court explained that the District Court and the legislature both asked the wrong question with respect to narrow tailoring. They asked how to maintain the present minority percentages in majority-minority districts, instead of asking the extent to which they must preserve existing minority percentages in order to maintain the minority’s present ability to elect the candidate of its choice. As a result, the decision of the District Court was vacated and the case was remanded.
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