Voters wait in line to cast their ballot on December 12, 2017, in Birmingham, Alabama. (Photo by Joe Raedle / Getty Images)
The Supreme Court just undercut Black voters’ power in Alabama—and signaled that it’s likely to further gut the Voting Rights Act.By a narrow 5-4 ruling issued Monday evening, the Supreme Court overturned a lower court’s ruling that Alabama Republicans’ gerrymandered House map violated the rights of its Black citizens. This ruling isn’t specifically on the merits of whether the map violated the Voting Rights Act—that’ll come later. But the court decided to allow the map to go into effect for the 2022 election in spite of an earlier ruling from lower-court judges that the map would cause “irreparable harm” to Black voters in Alabama if it were used in this year’s elections. That three-judge panel included two appointed by former President Donald Trump.
The move essentially dismissed a lower court’s ruling without actually hearing the facts of the case—using the so-called “shadow docket” to change interpretation of a law that for nearly six decades has served as the centerpiece of voting protections for minorities in the U.S.But what this signals is even more ominous for voting rights. The Supreme Court already dealt a body blow to the Voting Rights Act last summer by gutting the law’s main remaining enforcement mechanism, after damaging the law’s other main provision in 2013. This ruling indicates exactly how far the conservative justices may go in further limiting its reach by weakening the provision that bans racial gerrymandering.Alabama’s population is 27 percent Black, yet Alabama Republicans decided to draw a House map that packed as many Black voters as possible into a single House district in order to make the state’s other six districts heavily white and safely Republican. This ruling means that map will be in place for the 2022 midterms, costing Black voters a House seat and putting Republicans one seat closer to a House majority. This also gives a green light to other gerrymandered GOP maps in states with large Black populations like Louisiana and South Carolina, where civil rights groups were hoping for more than one Black-majority district in each state.
In a blistering dissent, liberal Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan slammed both the decision and how the court’s five most conservative justices decided to cavalierly use the shadow docket to reverse the lower court’s ruling.“Staying its decision forces Black Alabamians to suffer what under that law is clear vote dilution,” she wrote. “It does a disservice to Black Alabamians who under that precedent have had their electoral power diminished—in violation of a law this Court once knew to buttress all of American democracy.”The court’s three liberals were joined by conservative Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, who in a separate dissent signaled that he might join his conservative brethren in a later ruling on the merits of the case but thought it was improper to reverse the lower court ruling without giving it a full hearing.Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who sided with Alabama Republicans, argued that it was too close to the election to change the maps—essentially guaranteeing that no map can be struck down in a redistricting year, and that even illegal and discriminatory maps can be used if they’re challenged too close to an election. That argument is even weaker considering that Alabama’s primaries are still three and a half months away.As voting rights expert and University of California-Irvine professor Rick Hasen put it,“This is bad news in the short run and likely worse news in the long run.”