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Supreme Court’s South Carolina ruling boosts GOP, with national implications

The U.S. Supreme Court is seen in the early morning hours of Nov. 4, 2022, in Washington, D.C.  (Samuel Corum)
By Patrick Marley and Ann E. Marimow Washington Post

The Supreme Court on Thursday allowed South Carolina to use a congressional map that a lower court had said weakened Black voting rights, bolstering the political fortunes of Republicans as they seek to maintain control of the House of Representatives and making it harder to challenge districts on grounds of racial gerrymandering nationwide.

The 6-3 conservative majority reversed a finding by a three-judge panel that South Carolina’s GOP-led legislature had created an unconstitutional racial gerrymander when it “exiled” thousands of Black voters to another district to carve out one that was safer for a White Republican incumbent. The Supreme Court called the evidence that race motivated lawmakers weak and said courts needed to presume they acted in good faith.

The decision marked a victory for Republicans not only because it cleared the way for a map that is favorable to the GOP in a year when control of the narrowly divided U.S. House is on the line. It also set a high bar for determining when a map can be considered a racial gerrymander, rather than a partisan one. The court has previously found that the Constitution bars racial gerrymandering but that federal courts cannot police partisan gerrymandering.

Legal experts, as well as those who contested South Carolina’s map, said the decision would make it much tougher to challenge maps, especially in light of a Supreme Court ruling five years ago that found federal courts have no authority to strike down maps for giving excessive power to one political party. Under Thursday’s ruling, litigants will have to find overwhelming evidence to prove claims of racial gerrymandering.

Writing for the majority, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. noted many predominantly Black precincts in Charleston were moved out of one district and into another. But “because of the tight correlation between race and partisan preferences, this fact does little to show that race, not politics drove the legislature’s choice,” he wrote.

He was joined by all members of the court nominated by Republican presidents: Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Clarence Thomas, Neil M. Gorsuch, Brett M. Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett.

Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the justices nominated by Democrats, said the majority got it “seriously wrong” by making it easy for state officials to argue they weren’t drawing their maps based on race. She noted that mapmakers sometimes use racial data to shape the partisan makeup of districts and argued some of them “might want to straight-up suppress the electoral influence of minority voters.”

“Go right ahead, this Court says to States today,” Kagan wrote in an opinion joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ketanji Brown Jackson. “Go ahead, though you have no recognized justification for using race, such as to comply with statutes ensuring equal voting rights. Go ahead, though you are (at best) using race as a short-cut to bring about partisan gains – to elect more Republicans in one case, more Democrats in another. It will be easy enough to cover your tracks in the end: Just raise a ‘possibility’ of non-race-based decision-making, and it will be ‘dispositive.’”

Janai Nelson, president the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, said the majority had taken important protections away from Black voters. Her group represents the Black voters who challenged South Carolina’s map.

“Today the voices of Black South Carolinians were muted, and if we are not careful the next set of votes denied could be those in your state,” she said in a written statement.

The case is one of several redistricting cases that have been closely watched because control of the U.S. House after November is considered a toss-up. Some of the cases won’t be conclusively decided until after this year’s elections and will determine districts for 2026 and beyond.

South Carolina had asked the justices to issue a decision by Jan. 1 so that this year’s elections could proceed smoothly, but the justices apparently needed more time. The slow pace of the case prompted the lower court – a three-judge federal panel – to order that the state had to use the disputed map this year no matter how the Supreme Court ruled. With the state’s primaries slated for June 11, there was no time to draw a new map, the panel said.

The panel found last year that the map illegally split Black neighborhoods in the Charleston area to create a “stark racial gerrymander.” Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.), who had squeaked by her Democratic opponent in 2020, coasted to victory in 2022 in the redrawn district, keeping her seat in what has become a Republican-dominated 6-to-1 congressional delegation.

The judges found that South Carolina’s mapmaker tried to keep the Black population below a certain target in the district, treating Charleston County “in a fundamentally different way than the rest of the state.” Doing so would violate the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause, which prohibits state lawmakers from considering race as the predominant factor in adopting a new map.

After the panel rejected the map, South Carolina asked the Supreme Court to intervene, saying that maintaining Republican dominance was the reason for the changes, not race. The state also said the changes were partly to protect Rep. James E. Clyburn, the senior Democrat who is part of House leadership. Clyburn represents parts of Charleston County, and his district lost population over the past decade.

The fact that Black voters lean dramatically toward the Democratic Party often makes for legal battles after the redistricting that follows every decade’s census. The Supreme Court for more than a decade has issued decisions making it harder for Black voters to challenge redistricting plans. Thursday’s ruling adds to those difficulties by requiring much more explicit evidence that how a map was drawn was motivated by race.

“In the last decade, the racial gerrymandering cause of action has been one of the tools that minority voters have used to have better representation in Congress and in state legislatures,” said Richard Hasen, director of the Safeguarding Democracy Project at the University of California at Los Angeles. “This makes it much more difficult to win those cases.”

Alito wrote that those challenging maps must “disentangle” race from politics to show that a map is racially gerrymandered – a difficult task because race and partisan leanings are so closely linked. What’s more, courts must start with a presumption that legislatures act in good faith when they draw maps, Alito wrote. The district court “paid only lip service” to those notions, he wrote.

Thomas wrote a lengthy separate concurrence in which he agreed with the majority’s conclusion but said the courts should not be in the business of deciding constitutional claims over voting lines.

“Drawing political districts is a task for politicians, not federal judges,” Thomas wrote. In addition, he objected to a process of reviewing such claims in court that he said reduces Black voters to “partisan pawns and racial tokens.” The analysis, Thomas wrote, “is demeaning to the courts asked to perform it, to say nothing of the black voters that it stereotypes.”

South Carolina Senate President Thomas Alexander (R) commended the Supreme Court for its decision, saying the GOP map “was meticulously crafted to comply with statutory and constitutional requirements.”

“With its decision today, the Supreme Court affirmed the hard work of South Carolina Senators and the product they produced as constitutional,” he said in a written statement.

Those who brought the case expressed consternation at the ruling. “It’s as though we don’t matter – but we do matter. Our voices should be heard,” said Taiwan Scott, a Black voter who joined the South Carolina State Conference of the NAACP in bringing the case.

Leah Aden, senior counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, said she was studying how to continue the case because the justices left open the possibility of pursuing a different argument to try to redraw the map for 2026 and beyond. But she acknowledged it will make pursuing claims in other states more difficult.

“I do think we need to read this decision closely because the bar keeps getting moved and it keeps getting harder and harder for plaintiffs to uproot racial discrimination,” Aden said.

Kareem Clayton, the senior director for voting rights and representation for the Brennan Center for Justice, said the ruling will make it harder to challenge districts that discriminate against minorities because of the amount of evidence they will need to obtain. That could result in diminished voting power for racial minorities, he said.

“We know the populations of non-White communities are growing in many of these states where the issues of voting rights and race fairness has persisted,” Clayton said. “It’s quite distressing.”

While Thursday’s decision was a victory for Republicans, Harvard Law School professor Nicholas Stephanopoulos noted it cuts two ways. Republicans have brought similar cases to fight districts that favor Democrats, and they will have an equally hard time pursuing those cases now.

Thursday’s ruling came after conservatives on the Supreme Court last month provided a surprise victory to Black voters in Louisiana by blocking a lower court that could have reduced the number of majority-Black congressional districts in the state from two to one. The Supreme Court’s order in that case affects only the 2024 election, and the justices could revisit what the state’s election map looks like for 2026 and beyond.

In a separate case last year, the justices held that Alabama had illegally designed its congressional map to undercut the power of Black voters. Roberts and Kavanaugh joined the court’s three liberals to form a majority, finding that the state’s plan violated the Voting Rights Act by not creating a second congressional district – out of seven in the state – where Black voters made up a large enough share of the electorate to have a strong chance of electing their candidate of choice.

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The South Carolina case is Alexander v. the South Carolina State Conference of the NAACP.