Friday, August 12, 2022

Will Republican Court Shred Voting Rights Act Again?

            The Republican-majority Supreme Court is actively collaborating with Republican-controlled legislatures in two southern states to allow congressional elections in November that effectively deny black voters political rights ostensibly guaranteed to them by the federal Voting Rights Act. The legislatures in the two states, Alabama and Louisiana, drew congressional districting plans with only a single majority-black district, not two such districts as lower federal courts ruled were necessary to comply with the Voting Rights Act.

            Federal courts in those two states ordered the states to redraw congressional districts to create new maps with a second majority-black district with plenty of time to draw new maps and adjust filing deadlines to allow congressional elections in November to give black voters the opportunity to elect candidates of their choice in two districts in each of the states.

            Both states rushed to the Supreme Court to cry foul and ask for some special consideration to stay the lower court rulings. In both cases, Republican justices obliged and granted stays – in shadow-docket actions -- that effectively reversed the lower court decisions by preventing the use of new congressional districts in the November elections.

            In the Alabama case, Merrill v. Milligan, the state filed its application for a stay on January 28, just four days after the district court’s ruling. The Court granted the stay one week later on a 5-4 vote, with five Republican-appointed justices forming the majority against the dissenting votes of Chief Justice Roberts and the three Democratic-appointed justices Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan.   

            Writing for the three Democratic-appointed justices, Justice Elena Kagan commended the district court’s handling of the case. “The District Court here did everything right under the law existing today,” Kagan wrote in the dissent. “Staying its decision forces Black Alabamians to suffer what under that law is clear vote dilution.”

            Vote dilution is a harm that the Voting Rights Act and Supreme Court decisions interpreting the law are meant to prevent. The legislatures in the two states applied a standard redistricting technique to impose that harm – the term is “packing” and “cracking,” packing black voters into a district with a black supermajority and “cracking” the other black communities into several districts, so that the black voters would be badly outvoted by white voters in those districts.

            In both cases, the lower federal courts found that black voters were sufficiently numerous and sufficiently compact to comprise a majority in a second majority-black congressional district drawn in conformity with general redistricting principles.  Evan Milligan, the named plaintiff in the Alabama case, praised the district court’s decision when it was issued.

“We deserve to be heard in our electoral process, rather than have our votes diluted using a map that purposefully cracks and packs Black communities," Milligan said in a statement. “Today, the court recognized this harm and has ordered our elected officials to do better.”

Unfortunately for the plaintiffs’ case, the Supreme Court did not do better, but instead did worse by scheduling oral arguments on October 4. By staying the district court’s decision, five Republican-appointed justices denied black voters in Alabama the opportunity for fair congressional elections in November. Given the history of racially polarized voting in Alabama and Louisiana, the legislatures’ refusals to create a second majority black district effectively limit Democrats to no more than a single seat in the House delegations from both states.

The justices presumably know that political control of the House of Representatives may turn on no more than a handful of seats in the November elections. So the Court’s decisions in the two cases could help tip the balance of power to Republicans after November.

Louisiana officials asked the Court to stay the district court’s decision in the Louisiana case, Ardoin v. Robinson, on June 17; the Court obliged less than two weeks later, on June 28, with the three liberal justices dissenting – Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan,  in this case without Roberts.

            In the meantime, the Court had granted certiorari in the Alabama case, setting the stage for full briefing and oral arguments after the new term opens in October. The Court’s order in the Louisiana case specified that the justices would hold that case “in abeyance” pending the decision in the Alabama case.

            The stage is now set for the Supreme Court to give the Voting Rights Act a more favorable reception than the justices gave it in the most recent Voting Rights Act case, Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee (June 2021). In that case, Justice Samuel Alito led a 6-3 decision, split between Republican-appointed justices in the majority and Democratic-appointed justices in the minority, in finding no Voting Rights Act violations in election policies in Arizona that plainly hampered the ability of minority voters to cast ballots.

            Alito reached that result by disregarding a congressional amendment to the Voting Rights Act that forbade any election policy or practice that “results in a denial or abridgement of the right . . . to vote on account of race or color.” Instead, he effectively reverted to an earlier version of the act that the Court had interpreted to prohibit election practices only if deliberately intended to discriminate on the basis of race or color.

            The Court in the Alabama and Louisiana cases could conceivably do even more damage to the Voting Rights Act. Roberts, it will be recalled, was no fan of the act when Congress enacted the law in 1965.

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