In a surprising ruling, the Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice John Roberts, issued a groundbreaking decision on Thursday to uphold the Voting Rights Act as a vital defense against racial gerrymandering. The verdict marks a significant departure from the Court’s previous trajectory of eroding voter protections, signaling a pause in undermining the rights of American voters.
The Court currently faces a crisis of legitimacy and Roberts does not want to be the captain of the U.S. Supreme Court Titanic, presiding over an institution that is utterly losing the faith of Americans. That may be why Roberts, along with Justice Brett Kavanaugh, joined the three liberal justices, to reject Alabama’s attempts to chip away at the remaining safeguards provided by our nation’s pivotal voting rights legislation.
In a particularly fiery dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas argued against the application of the Voting Rights Act to redistricting, saying that the VRA should solely focus on ballot access and counting, rather than extending to redistricting matters. He advocated for resolving the cases in a manner that would prevent the federal judiciary from determining the correct racial apportionment of Alabama’s congressional seats.
Thomas also joined a separate dissent from conservative Justice Samuel Alito and Justice Neil Gorsuch, characterizing the majority opinion as having a “flawed understanding” of Supreme Court precedent.
With its ruling, the Court has effectively fulfilled the promise that Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act continues to serve as a protective barrier against lawmakers seeking to undermine the voting rights of minority communities.
In 2013, the Court infamously invalidated a substantial portion of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act. However, it reassured the public that Section 2 remained intact.
Section 2 explicitly prohibits the drawing of district lines that diminish minority voting strength. And it undeniably does so, especially in cases like the one brought before the Court on Thursday, which Justice Elena Kagan described as a clear-cut matter.
In 2021, Alabama’s predominantly Republican-controlled Legislature redrew district lines for its seven congressional seats. These district lines can result in the dilution of minority votes through tactics known as “packing” and “cracking.” Packing involves concentrating minority voters within a single district, thereby preventing them from exerting influence in other districts. To illustrate, imagine lawmakers deliberately crafting district lines that force 80% of a minority group’s members into one district. That is packing. Cracking, on the other hand, involves dispersing minority voters across various districts, preventing them from amassing the necessary numbers to elect their preferred candidates.
This is precisely what the challengers argued Alabama’s Legislature had done. Black individuals constitute over one-fourth of the state’s population, yet the challengers claimed that the district lines had packed Black voters into one district while cracking them throughout the others. Consequently, although Black residents make up more than 25% of the state’s population, they could only elect a candidate of their choice in a single district. Challengers asserted that there should have been two districts with a Black majority, amounting to 28% of the total districts.
The Court largely agreed with the challengers, concluding that they had provided convincing evidence that a minority group of sufficient size and compactness existed to form a majority in a second district.
Not only did the Court rightfully acknowledge the challengers’ strong likelihood of success in their Voting Rights Act claim, but it also, at least for the time being, rejected Alabama’s argument that using race-neutral factors in redistricting negates the consequences of diminishing minority voting power. Such a stance would have severely undermined the remaining strength of Section 2.
Conservative Justice Samuel Alito and Justice Neil Gorsuch expressed strong dissent, characterizing the majority opinion as having a “flawed understanding” of Supreme Court precedent. They voiced concern about the trajectory that the decision sets for the Voting Rights Act (VRA), deeming it perilous and unfortunate.
It’s important to note that this ruling primarily pertains to voting rights and is unlikely to extend its reasoning to other areas, such as affirmative action programs.