Tuesday, November 11, 2014
The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments tomorrow in the case challenging Alabama's re-drawing of its state legislative districts after the 2010 census. The case pits a claim under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act against a defense under Section 5, although the constitutionality of those provisions is not (directly) at issue in the case.
Alabama redrew its state legislative districts after the 2010 census in order to maintain equal population across districts (within 2 percent), to maintain the existing number of majority-minority districts, and to maintain the existing percentage of black voters in those majority-minority districts. But the state's demographics shifted so that in order to achieve those goals the state had to pack black voters into existing majority-minority districts. The net result was to consolidate minority voting power in these majority-minority districts, but to enhance Republicans' power in the rest of the state.
Democrats and black legislators and groups sued, arguing that the re-districting plans violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act and amounted to racial and political gerrymanders. The state countered that it was compelled to draw the districts this way under Section 5 of the VRA in order to preserve majority-minority districts and to avoid retrogression. (The irony of Alabama using Section 5 as a shield after it so vigorously attacked Section 5 in Shelby County has escaped no one.)
The three-judge district court divided along party lines--the two judges appointed by a Republican president ruling for the state, and the lone judge appointed by a Democrat dissenting.
The case pits the plaintiffs' Section 2 claim against the state's Section 5-based reason for the districts. The state's position--that Section 5 made them do it--is part of a larger trend of states applying "not the Voting Rights Act, but a hamhanded cartoon of the Voting Rights Act--substituting blunt numerical demographic targets for the searching examination of local political conditions that the statute actually demands," according to Loyola's (Los Angeles) Justin Levitt. The state's position also potentially puts the constitutionality of Section 5 before the Court: If Section 5 requires race-based decisions like this, isn't it unconstitutional? That question isn't squarely before the Court, but it's certainly lingering behind the curtains.