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US Supreme Court backs Black voters in challenge to Alabama electoral map

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By John Kruzel

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday handed a major victory to Black voters who challenged a Republican-drawn electoral map in Alabama, finding that the state violated a landmark federal law prohibiting racial discrimination in voting.

The 5-4 ruling affirmed a lower court’s decision that the map diluted the voting power of Black Alabamians, running afoul of a bedrock U.S. civil rights law, the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the ruling, which was joined by fellow conservative Justice Brett Kavanaugh and the court’s three liberal members Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Ketanji Brown Jackson.

With Thursday’s ruling, the Supreme Court elected not to further roll back protections contained in the Voting Rights Act as it had done in two major rulings in the past decade. The decision centered upon Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, a provision aimed at countering measures that result in racial bias in voting even absent racist intent.

“We find Alabama’s new approach to (Section 2) compelling neither in theory nor in practice,” Roberts wrote. “We accordingly decline to recast our (Section 2) case law as Alabama requests.”

At issue was the map approved in 2021 by the Republican-controlled state legislature setting the boundaries of Alabama’s seven U.S. House of Representatives districts. The map featured one majority-Black district, with six majority-white districts, even though Black people comprised 27% of the state’s population. The lower court ordered Alabama to configure a second House district where Black voters could hold a majority or close to it.

The Voting Rights Act was passed at a time when Southern states including Alabama enforced policies blocking Black people from casting ballots. Nearly six decades later, race remains a contentious issue in American politics and society more broadly.

Conservative states and groups had previously succeeded in prodding the Supreme Court to limit the Voting Rights Act’s scope. Its 2013 ruling in another Alabama case struck down a key part that determined which states with histories of racial discrimination needed federal approval to change voting laws. In a 2021 ruling endorsing Republican-backed Arizona voting restrictions, the justices made it harder to prove violations under Section 2.

The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision in February 2022, had let Alabama use its disputed map for the U.S. congressional elections in November in which Republicans narrowly regained control of the U.S. House.

In the ruling on Thursday, two consolidated cases before the Supreme Court involved challenges brought by Black voters and advocacy groups accusing the state of violating Section 2.

The challengers said Alabama’s map reduced the influence of Black voters by concentrating their voting power in one district while distributing the rest of the Black population in other districts at levels too small to form a majority.

‘TEXTBOOK EXAMPLE’

Abha Khanna, who argued the case on behalf of one set of challengers, hailed the court’s ruling.

“Alabama’s current congressional map systematically dilutes the voting power of Black Alabamians, in clear violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act,” Khanna said. “Thankfully, the court today identified Alabama’s redistricting scheme as a textbook violation of the landmark civil rights law.”

A three-judge federal court panel in January 2022 sided with the challengers, blocking the Republican-drawn map as a “substantially likely” violation of Section 2 and ordering an additional district where Black voters make up “a voting-age majority or something quite close to it.” Alabama then appealed to the Supreme Court.

Alabama officials argued that drawing a second district to give Black voters a better chance at electing their preferred candidate would itself be racially discriminatory by favoring them at the expense of other voters. If the Voting Rights Act required the state to consider race in such a manner, according to Alabama, the statute would violate the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment guarantee of equal protection under the law.

Democratic President Joe Biden’s administration and a number of voting rights groups who backed the plaintiffs had said that a ruling favoring Alabama would threaten certain electoral districts in other states – for the U.S. House and state legislatures – potentially diminishing minority representation in American politics.

Electoral districts are redrawn each decade to reflect population changes as measured by a national census, last taken in 2020. In most states, such redistricting is done by the party in power, which can lead to map manipulation for partisan gain.

In a major 2019 ruling, the Supreme Court barred federal judges from curbing the practice, known as partisan gerrymandering. That ruling did not preclude court scrutiny of racially discriminatory gerrymandering.

Democrats have accused Republicans of pursuing policies at the state level that intended to suppress the vote of racial minorities. Republicans have said they were acting to prevent voting fraud. In addition, high-profile instances of Black people killed by police have fueled America’s ongoing debate about racial justice.

(Reporting by John Kruzel in Washington; Additional reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)

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