Wednesday, March 25, 2015

In Victory for Plaintiffs, Court Vacates, Remands Alabama Redistricting Case

The Supreme Court ruled today (5-4, with Justice Kennedy joining the four progressives in the majority) that the district court erred in its analysis of the plaintiffs' racial gerrymandering claims against the State of Alabama in the wake of the state's redistricting after the 2010 census. The ruling, a victory for the plaintiffs, sends the case back to the district court and allows the parties to introduce additional evidence to support their cases. It also gives the momentum to the plaintiffs on the merits. We previously posted on the case here.

The case now goes back to the district court for reconsideration in light of the four points below. Today's ruling also allows the plaintiffs to submit additional evidence in support of their claims, thus strengthening their district-specific discrimination claims, their claims that race was a predominate factor in drawing certain districts, and their argument that the state's use of race wasn't sufficiently tailored to comply with Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

Thus while today's ruling isn't an outright victory for the plaintiffs, it gives them the clear momentum on remand.

The case, Alabama Legislative Black Caucus v. Alabama, arose after Alabama redrew its legislative districts in a way that packed black voters into existing majority-minority districts. The state said it did this in order to avoid retrogression under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. (The state was then covered by Section 5, pre-Shelby County.) The plaintiffs challenged the move as a racial gerrymander. The three-judge district court rejected the challenge and ruled in favor of the state.

The Court (by Justice Breyer) vacated that ruling and remanded the case. Justice Breyer wrote that the district court made four legal mistakes:

1. The district court treated the plaintiffs' challenge to the redistricting as a whole, when it should have treated the challenge in specific electoral districts. The Court said that the district court concluded that because racial criteria had not predominated in redrawing some districts, racial criteria did not predominate "with respect to the State as an undifferentiated whole." This was in error. Moreover, the Court held that the plaintiffs didn't pitch their case only against the State as an undifferentiated whole (as the dissent argued); instead, the plaintiffs presented evidence to support a district-specific approach (even if they could have made this case "more clearly")--the approach that the district court should have used.

The Court ordered the district court to consider a district-specific approach on remand and allowed the plaintiffs to produce additional evidence to support their claims.

2. The district court erroneously held that the Alabama Democratic Conference lacked standing to make its claims against redistricting as a whole and as to four individual Senate districts. The district court said that the Conference lacked associational standing, because the record didn't clearly identify the districts where individual Conference members resided. The Court said this was wrong--and that the district court should have given the Conference an opportunity to show standing. The Court held that the recorded supported the fact that the Conference was state-wide, and had members in each of the state's majority-minority districts. The Court ordered the district court on remand to "reconsider the Conference's standing by permitting the Conference to file its list of members and permitting the State to respond, as appropriate."

3. The district court erred by holding in the alternative that the race was not a predominant factor in the creation of any individual district. The Court held that the district court "did not properly calculate 'predominance,'" because it concluded that the state considered race along with other race-neutral factors, so that the other factors outweighed the consideration of race. Justice Breyer explained:

In our view, however, an equal protection goal is not one factor among others to be weighed against the use of race to determine whether race "predominates." Rather, it is part of the redistricting background, taken as a given, when determining whether race, or other factors, predominate in a legislator's determination as to how equal population objections will be met."

In other words, the question whether race predominates compares a state's consideration of race with its consideration of race-neutral factors like compactness, contiguity, respect for political subdivisions or communities, incumbency protection, and political affiliation. But that comparison list does not include equal population. Equal population is different, because it's constitutionally required. "It is not a factor to be treated like other nonracial factors when a court determines whether race predominates over other, 'traditional' factors in the drawing of district boundaries." Instead, it's a "background rule against which redistricting takes place." And the district court was wrong to say otherwise.

Treating equal population as a background rule (and not one of the nonracial factors), the Court said that race might well have predominated in the drawing of certain districts. It remanded for reconsideration.

4. The district court wrongly concluded that even if race predominated, the gerrmandering claims failed because the redrawn districts satisfied strict scrutiny--that is, they are drawn to comply with Section 5 of the VRA. The Court said that the district court misperceived Section 5: It "does not require a covered jurisdiction to maintain a particular numerical minority" (as the district court held), but rather "requires the jurisdiction to maintain a minority's ability to elect a preferred candidate of choice."

Justice Scalia wrote the principal dissent, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Thomas and Alito. Justice Scalia said that the plaintiffs screwed up their case by alleging a state-wide violation--a claim the law doesn't allow--and that the majority wrongly gave them a do-over.

[A]llowing appellants a second bite at the apple invites lower courts similarly to depart from the premise that our is an adversarial system whenever they deem the stakes sufficiently high. Because I do not believe that Article III empowers this Court to act as standby counsel for sympathetic litigants, I dissent.

Justice Thomas wrote a separate dissent for himself alone to say how "our jurisprudence in this area continues to be infected with error." "We have somehow arrived at a place where the parties agree that Alabama's legislative districts should be fine-tuned to achieve some 'optimal' result with respect to black voting power; the only disagreement is about what percentage of blacks should be placed in those optimized districts. This is nothing more than a fight over the 'best' racial quota.'"

 

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