“Violations of the [Voting Rights Act] should not be too easy to prove,” wrote a young John Roberts while serving in the Reagan administration in 1982, “since they provide a basis for the most incisive interference imaginable by federal courts in state and local processes.”
Forty years later, the conservative majority of the court seems ready to complete Roberts’ crusade against the country’s most important civil rights law and seriously weaken it from all sides.
In 2013, the Roberts Court ruled that states with a long history of discrimination would no longer need federal approval to change their voting laws and voting limits, opening the door to a wave of new voter-suppression efforts. Eight years later, the court made it far more difficult to strike down laws that disadvantage minority voters.
On Tuesday, the court heard a new challenge to the federal suffrage law from Alabama — where civil rights protests in the 1960s spurred the law’s passage — that could result in a huge drop in representation for communities of color.
Alabama has a black population of 27 percent, but only one of the state’s seven congressional districts is likely to choose a candidate favored by black voters. Civil rights groups sued during the last redistricting cycle, saying the state’s failure to draw a second black-majority district violated the VRA. A three-judge panel, which included two people appointed by Donald Trump, agreed, writing that “black voters have less opportunity than other Alabamaans to elect candidates of their choosing to Congress.”
But in a 5-4 Shadow Docket Opinion last February, the Supreme Court reinstated Alabama’s original midterm redistribution plan.
Now in Merrill v. mulligan, the judges seem poised to go further. The court has already refused to strike down partisan manipulations; it could soon be overloaded with racist gerrymandering.
Alabama argued in court Tuesday that any consideration of race in drawing new districts is itself discriminatory, turning the Voting Rights Act on its head. If the court’s conservative majority adopts this “race-blind” reasoning, it would reverse the law’s very purpose — to root out decades of discrimination against Black Americans and other historically disenfranchised minority groups — and to inhibit representation of communities of color as U.S. leader toward a majority -Minority Future.
“The benchmark you proposed was never recognized by this court,” Judge Elena Kagan told Alabama Attorney General Edmund LaCour. She said the case, brought by civil rights groups, was “a kind of slam dunk” following previous Supreme Court precedents. Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, during her first week of hearings in court, found that it was profoundly ahistorical to read the country’s constitution and civil rights laws without considering race. “The whole point of the [14th] The change was intended to secure rights for the freed former slaves,” she said said.
Justice Jackson tells the Alabama Attorney General that the drafters of the 14th Amendment did NOT intend it to be “race-neutral or race-blind,” so using race to protect minority voting rights is fully constitutional. Progressive originalism at work. pic.twitter.com/aCXAq2CnJu
— Mark Joseph Stern (@mjs_DC) October 4, 2022
Judge Samuel Alito — one of the most conservative members of the court — called some of Alabama’s arguments “quite sweeping” but sought to narrow the case down to essentially helping the state win. “Their least far-reaching argument,” Alito suggested, is that the VRA “requires proof that there can be a reasonably configured majority-minority district. It’s not just any majority-minority neighborhood, it has to be designed sensibly. And sensibly configured means something more than just compact, it means a district that is the kind of district that would be drawn by an unbiased map maker.
As UCLA law professor Rick Hasen tweetedthe goal of Alito and some other Conservative justices, including Brett Kavanaugh, appears to be to reshape the VRA to make it harder for minority voters to win cases of racial gerrymandering — without appearing to be rewriting laws .
The case has repercussions far beyond Alabama. As a result of the 2013 Shelby County v. holder Decision, the 2021 redistribution cycle was the first in 50 years in which states with a history of discrimination no longer required federal officials to sign off on their redistribution cards. This resulted in a dramatic reversal of previous gains for minority voters in states across the South, with Republican-controlled states either failing to establish new majority-minority districts to keep up with changing demographics, or even dismantling existing ones that had long been embraced Doing so would be illegal under the VRA. As a result, the number of black-majority congressional districts could drop from 22 today to just nine after the 2022 midterms.
During his last term, the Supreme Court said that issues like abortion should be decided by “the people’s elected officials” in the states. But by systematically undermining efforts to make American democracy fairer and more just, the Supreme Court has widened the gulf between the people and their elected representatives.