Sunday, October 2, 2022
Tomorrow, the Supreme Court launches into a new term that promises to be momentous. A no longer hesitant majority of the Court flexed their muscle last term to launch new approaches to constitutional law and overturn or impair venerable precedent addressing abortion, gun, and religious rights. Seeing the indisputable writing on the wall, some advocates have taken a hefty swing for the rafters on a range of other issues – and it seems likely to pay off because the court’s current membership has signaled its willingness to entertain bold requests, rather than incremental change, despite potential damage to the public’s trust in impartial justice divorced from politics. When a court signals its interests that appear to align with political ideologies, advocates should listen and act accordingly.
In anticipation of this term, advocates have listened. A cluster of cases have arrived at the Court seeking a pure version of Justice Harlan’s phrase, color-blindness, in civil rights and applying the concept to voting, affirmative action, Native American adoption, and non-discrimination in business dealings. While discussions about the upcoming term often begin and end with the potential of Moore v. Harper to skew our democracy so that parties in power could perpetuate their control regardless of what voters choose by invoking the “independent state legislature theory,” other earth-shaking cases populate the docket as well.
Today, I want to focus on another election law case that the Court will hear this week, which has received far less notice than it deserves and demonstrates the go-bold strategies being brought to the Court. In Merrill v. Milligan, the Court returns to the Voting Rights Act to determine whether Section 2 remains a viable basis for challenging racial gerrymandering. The plaintiffs challenged Alabama’s congressional redistricting plan, which, consistent with longstanding reapportionment decisions in the state, again drew a single majority-Black district out of the state’s seven seats, even though Blacks represent a quarter of the state’s population. The plaintiffs argue that by dispersing Black voters among the other districts the legislature diluted Black voting strength and diminished their opportunity to elect candidates who would represent their concerns and interests. Plaintiffs prevailed on that theory before a three-judge court.
The court below reached its decision by relying on the Supreme Court’s decision in Thornburg v. Gingles, which requires a vote-dilution claim to show a sufficiently large and compact minority group that is politically cohesive and who suffer an inability to elect the candidate of their choice because of non-minority bloc voting. After that determination, a totality-of-the-circumstances assessment then takes place to determine if the minority voters have a lesser opportunity to elect their preferred candidate than the majority voters.
Alabama, however, has asked the Court to change the test. A major part of its proposal asks that courts require plaintiffs to establish that racial discrimination provides the only explanation for the alleged racial gerrymander. In other words, Alabama’s test would authorize states to overcome the accusation by showing that some other purpose, such as party politics, provides at least part of the rationale for the districts drawn.
Without such a test, Alabama contends that Section 2 is unconstitutional because it requires race to be considered. With similar issues raised in affirmative action and Native American adoption cases this term, the Court’s interest in reconfiguring civil rights law seems apparent. Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, requiring preclearance of certain election law changes, was neutralized in 2013 by Shelby County v. Holder. Similar damage was previously done to Section 2 in Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee last year by reading the statutory provision narrowly.
If Alabama’s argument prevails, Merrill may mark the demise of the Voting Rights Act and vindicate the very bold approach Alabama has taken to defending its gerrymandering with a clear eye on signals sent by members of the Court. Margo Channing’s observation in All About Eve seems to sum up anticipation of this Supreme Court term: “Fasten your seatbelts; it's going to be a bumpy [and long] night.”