High court’s decision will leave map in place for 2022 election but allows challenge to map to continue
♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor
WASHINGTON (CFP) — The U.S. Supreme Court has overruled a panel of Alabama federal judges who ordered state legislators to redraw the state’s U.S. House map to create a second majority-black district.
The decision is a victory for Republican members of Alabama’s U.S. House delegation, who can now proceed with their re-election plans without the daunting prospect of running in unfamiliar territory.
In a 5-to-4 decision issued February 8, the high court did not rule on the underlying legal dispute over whether Alabama’s map violated the Voting Rights Act. But the majority said forcing legislators to redraw it before May’s primary, with candidate qualifying underway, would be too disruptive to the process.
“When an election is close at hand, the rules of the road must be clear and settled,” Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote explaining the majority’s reasoning. “Late judicial tinkering with election laws can lead to disruption and to unanticipated and unfair consequences for candidates, political parties, and voters.”
However, Chief Justice John Roberts — who voted with the court’s four liberal members against giving the state a stay of the lower court ruling — said the lower court had “properly applied” the standard for evaluating voting rights challenges “with no apparent errors for our correction.”
The Supreme Court’s order did not invalidate the determination of the lower court that the map was illegally drawn but stayed the order striking down the map until the case can be fully adjudicated — likely with another trip up to the Supreme Court.
On January 24, a panel of three federal judges — which included two judges appointed by Donald Trump — tossed out the map drawn by state legislators that contained six heavily Republican districts and one majority black district, following the general contours of the map in place since 2011.
The judges noted that the black voting age population in Alabama is 27%, while having one black Congress member out of seven results in 14% representation. With two black members, participation and the voting age population would match, and the judges told legislators that “any remedial plan will need to include two districts in which Black voters either comprise a voting-age majority or something quite close to it.”
The decision would almost certainly have meant another Democrat joining the state’s seven-member House delegation, forcing one of the five sitting Republicans seeking re-election to either run in unfamiliar territory in North Alabama or launch a primary challenge to one of their GOP colleagues to stay in office.
Attorney General Steve Merrill immediately appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court, saying he “strongly disagreed” with the judges’ conclusion that the map ran afoul of the federal Voting Rights Act.
The ruling also had implications in neighboring Louisiana, which has an even higher black voting age population but just one black member of Congress in a six-member delegation. (Adding a second black-majority district in Louisiana would slightly overrepresent the state’s black voting age population because of its lower number of seats.)
With the ruling in the Alabama case, it would appear that the high court would be unlikely to sustain a similar challenge in Louisiana.
If the courts eventually order creation of second majority-black district, the change would likely have the biggest effect in South Alabama. The current majority-black 7th District, represented by Democrat Terri Sewell, includes black voters in Birmingham and Montgomery but not in Mobile, which has a black majority that could be the core of a new district.
Another possibility would be creating a seat similar to a district in southwest Georgia, which includes enough of the area’s rural black population to elect black Democrat Sanford Bishop, who has held the seat since it was created in 1992.
Prior to 2013, the Biden Justice Department would have needed to clear Alabama’s U.S. House map before it could have gone into effect. But a U.S. Supreme Court ruling struck down the pre-clearance provisions of the Voting Rights Act, which pushed map challenges into federal courts.
The judges who struck down Alabama’s map were Trump-appointed U.S. District Judges Terry Moorer, from the Southern District of Alabama, and Anna Manasco, from the Northern District, and 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Stanley Marcus, who was appointed to the Atlanta-based appeals court by President Bill Clinton.