WASHINGTON -- A divided Supreme Court on Wednesday said a lower court must take another look at whether Alabama's Republican-led legislature relied too heavily on race when it redrew the state's voting districts in a way that black leaders say limited minority voting power.
The justices split 5-4 across ideological lines in ruling that a three-judge panel did not properly consider complaints that state officials illegally packed black voters into too few voting districts.
Writing for the court, Justice Stephen 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.
Breyer said both the district court and the state legislature relied too much on a "mechanically numerical" view of whether the new plan reduced minority voting strength.
"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," Breyer said. "Asking the wrong question may well have led to the wrong answer."
Justice Anthony Kennedy, often a swing vote, joined the court's four liberals in the majority, including Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor.
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.
African-Americans challenging the state's Republican-drawn maps said black voters should have been somewhat dispersed to increase their influence in elections.
A panel of three federal judges had ruled 2-1 in 2013 that the new districts were not discriminatory and did not violate the Voting Rights Act or the Constitution.
Like other states, the Alabama Legislature had to redraw political boundaries to reflect population shifts in the 2010 Census. The process can often lead to gerrymandering - the manipulation of district boundaries to gain a partisan advantage.
In dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia said the court's majority "issues a sweeping holding that will have profound implications for the constitutional ideal of one person, one vote, for the future of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and for the primacy of the state in managing its own elections."
Scalia said the challengers never really proved or even made formal arguments about district-specific claims of racial gerrymandering. He complained that majority was allowing the challengers "to take a mulligan," or have a second chance, despite their pursuit of a "flawed litigation strategy."
Scalia's dissent was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito.
Thomas also issued a separate dissent.
"I do not pretend that Alabama is blameless when it comes to its sordid history of racial politics," Thomas said. "But, today the state is not the one that is culpable. Its redistricting effort was indeed tainted, but it was tainted by our voting rights jurisprudence and the uses to which the Voting Rights Act has been put."
Thomas added: "Long ago, the DOJ and special-interest groups like the ACLU hijacked the act, and they have been using it ever since to achieve their vision of maximized black electoral strength, often at the expense of the voters they purport to help," referring to the Department of Justice, which enforces the Voting Rights Act, and the American Civil Liberties Union.
Alabama Rep. Darrio Melton, a Democrat from Selma, called the Supreme Court's decision "a step in the right direction" but said he won't be satisfied unless the courts eventually order new districts line.
Before the new lines were drawn, Melton said, black voters who lived in majority white districts could influence who was picked to serve in the Alabama Legislature.
"To take that away is basically to dilute their voices," Melton said.
Sen. Del Marsh, the Republican leader of the Alabama Senate, said he did not fear an additional court review. He noted the Justice Department approved the plan in 2012 when Alabama was under a preclearance requirement of the Voting Rights Act.
"I am confident that the plan is legal, fair and will once again be affirmed by the court," Marsh said.