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Supreme Court sides with South Carolina Republicans in redistricting dispute

Supreme Court approves S.C. congressional map
Supreme Court sides with South Carolina GOP on congressional map 09:31

Washington — The Supreme Court on Thursday maintained the lines of a congressional district in South Carolina that a lower court had invalidated as an unlawful racial gerrymander, delivering a win to Republican mapmakers who said they used politics, not race, as the predominant factor when drawing the district bounds.

The 6-3 ruling from the high court reverses the ruling from a three-judge district court panel that found GOP lawmakers improperly used race when designing Congressional District 1, represented by Republican Rep. Nancy Mace.

In a majority opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito, the court's conservative justices said that the district court's findings were "clearly erroneous." Race and politics "closely correlate" in South Carolina, and voters who challenged the congressional lines failed to provide direct evidence of a racial gerrymander, the Supreme Court said.

"The fact of the matter is that politics pervaded the highly visible mapmaking process from start to finish," Alito wrote.

In a dissenting opinion written by Justice Elena Kagan, and joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ketanji Brown Jackson, the three liberal justices accused the majority of cherry-picking evidence presented during the lower court proceedings and "reworking the law" to impede racial-gerrymandering cases. 

"The proper response to this case is not to throw up novel roadblocks enabling South Carolina to continue dividing citizens along racial lines," Kagan wrote. "It is to respect the plausible — no, the more than plausible — findings of the district court that the state engaged in race-based districting. And to tell the state that it must redraw District 1, this time without targeting African-American citizens."

South Carolina Republicans and the state chapter of the NAACP had asked the justices to issue their ruling by Jan. 1 to ensure clarity for voters in the 2024 elections. Arguments in the case, known as Alexander v. South Carolina Conference of the NAACP, were held in October and were among the first of the court's new term. 

But as January came and went with no decision, GOP officials requested the three-judge district court panel that oversaw the case pause its own January 2023 decision invalidating the lines Congressional District 1, which it agreed to do in March. The order from the judges allowed the state to use the map that it found was racially gerrymandered for the upcoming congressional contests. Statewide primaries are set for June 11.

President Biden criticized the decision and said in a statement that it "undermines the basic principle that voting practices should not discriminate on account of race and that is wrong."

"This decision threatens South Carolinians' ability to have their voices heard at the ballot box, and the districting plan the court upheld is part of a dangerous pattern of racial gerrymandering efforts from Republican elected officials to dilute the will of Black voters," Mr. Biden said.

South Carolina's congressional map

Located along South Carolina's southeastern coast and anchored in Charleston County, voters in Congressional District 1 have elected Republicans to the House from 1980 to 2016. Democrat Joe Cunningham won the seat in 2018 in an upset, but Mace claimed a narrow victory in the following congressional election.

During the redistricting process that began in 2021, Republican lawmakers wanted to give the district a stronger GOP tilt. To accomplish this goal, they moved more than 140,000 residents out of the district and into Congressional District 6, long represented by Democratic Rep. Jim Clyburn.

The new voting map was enacted in January 2022, and Mace won reelection that November by a wider margin than two years earlier. But the NAACP's South Carolina chapter and a voter in the district challenged the boundaries of Congressional District 1 as an unconstitutional racial gerrymander and alleged the district was designed with racially discriminatory intent.

After an eight-day trial, the three-judge panel agreed and concluded that GOP lawmakers impermissibly used a racial target and sorted voters predominantly by race to achieve a partisan outcome.

The judges found that Republican mapmakers set a target of 17% Black voting-age population in Congressional District 1 and moved more than 30,000 Black residents into Congressional District 6 to produce a stronger Republican lean. The district court blocked the state from holding an election with the GOP-drawn map for Congressional District 1.

South Carolina Republicans appealed the panel's decision last February and argued the district court failed to disentangle race from politics. The lawmakers said politics was the main motivating factor they considered during redistricting, which is permissible after the Supreme Court in 2019 said federal courts could not hear claims of partisan gerrymandering, the practice of drawing voting maps to entrench the party in power.

The opinions

Writing for the majority, Alito said that the map's challengers failed to offer direct evidence to support their claim that South Carolina Republicans had a racial target — a voting-age population that is 17% Black — when they drew Congressional District 1. Instead, the court said that figure is "simply a side effect of the legislature's partisan goal."

"Where race and partisan preferences are very closely tied, as they are here, the mere fact that District 1's BVAP stayed more or less constant proves very little," Alito wrote. "If 100% of black voters voted for Democratic candidates, it is obvious that any map with the partisan breakdown that the legislature sought in District 1 — something in the range of 54% Republican to 46% Democratic — would inevitably involve the removal of a disproportionate number of black voters. And since roughly 90% of black voters cast their ballots for Democratic candidates, the same phenomenon is very likely."

The majority rebuffed the district court's focus on the Black voters moved out of Congressional District 1 and into Congressional District 6, which it relied on to show a racial motive. Instead, Alito wrote that "because of the tight correlation between race and partisan preferences, this fact does little to show that race, not politics, drove the legislature's choice."

In a concurring opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas said he does not believe courts should hear racial gerrymandering and vote dilution claims at all.

"Drawing political districts is a task for politicians, not federal judges," he wrote. "There are no judicially manageable standards for resolving claims about districting, and, regardless, the Constitution commits those issues exclusively to the political branches."

Thomas, who joined nearly all of the majority opinion, said that attempting to determine how a legislature would have drawn voting boundaries "in a vacuum is a fools errand."

"It behooves us to abandon our misguided efforts and leave districting to politicians," he said.

In her dissent, Kagan accused the majority of imposing a more difficult standard for proving voting lines were racially gerrymandered, which she said put "uncommon burdens on gerrymandered plaintiffs" and includes an evidentiary rule that is intended to "scuttle gerrymandering cases."

The liberal justices said that the majority opinion sends a signal to state legislators and mapmakers to use race as a proxy to meet their partisan goals.

"And so this 'odious' practice of sorting citizens, built on racial generalizations and exploiting racial divisions, will continue," Kagan wrote for the dissenters. "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."

The battle over Congressional District 1 is the latest to come before the high court that arose after the 2021 redistricting process. The justices in September 2023 declined requests by Alabama officials to use a congressional map drawn by Republicans in the state in the 2024 elections, which a lower court said likely violated federal law. 

That decision came after the high court upheld a ruling that invalidated the boundaries of the state's seven congressional districts. As a result, federal judges in October selected a new congressional map that will give the state a second district where Black voters make up a significant portion of the electorate. 

Similar disputes over the voting lines in Georgia, Louisiana and Florida have also played out, and a new map crafted in Louisiana could give Democrats an advantage in the November elections, when Republicans are seeking to hold onto their control of the House. The Supreme Court earlier this month cleared the way for Louisiana to use for the upcoming 2024 elections a congressional map that includes a second district where the majority of voters are Black, giving them the opportunity to elect their favored candidate.

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