March 25, 2015

Supreme Court Decides Alabama Legislative Black Caucus v. Alabama

On March 25, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Alabama Legislative Black Caucus v. Alabama, No. 13-895, holding that: 1) racial gerrymandering claims must be viewed on a district-by-district basis, rather than on a statewide basis; 2) a goal of creating districts with equal population is not one of the traditional factors to be weighed against the use of race in determining whether race was the “predominant motivating factor” in creating districts; and 3) Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act does not require a covered jurisdiction to maintain a particular numerical minority percentage, it requires that redistricted majority-minority areas retain their ability to elect their preferred candidate.

Electoral districting violates the Equal Protection Clause when 1) race is the dominant and controlling or predominant consideration in deciding to place a significant number of voters within or without a particular district; and 2) the use of race is not narrowly tailored to serve a compelling state interest.

The Alabama Constitution requires the legislature to reapportion its state house and senate electoral districts after each federal census. In 2012, Alabama redrew its districts’ boundaries. In addition to the “traditional” districting goals, such as minimizing change and not splitting counties or precincts, Alabama placed “greater importance” on two other goals: 1) minimizing the extent to which a district deviated from the ideal of a precisely equal population; and 2) complying with the Voting Rights Act’s requirement that redistricting “would not bring about retrogression in respect to racial minorities’ ‘ability . . . to elect their preferred candidates of choice.’” Alabama interpreted this no-retrogression requirement as requiring it to maintain roughly the same black population percentage as existing majority-minority districts. Complying with these two goals was difficult in many of Alabama’s majority-minority districts, which were often underpopulated.

The Alabama Legislative Black Caucus and the Alabama Democratic Conference filed suit; the district court construed the Caucus’s claims as challenging the state’s actions “as a whole,” and the Conference as challenging the actions both as a whole and as to four specific districts. The court concluded that race was not the predominant motivating factor under either theory. It also decided that the Conference had no standing because the record did not clearly identify the districts in which the individual members of the Conference resided. And, in the alternative, the district court concluded that the use of race in drawing the boundaries was narrowly tailored to serve a compelling state interest — namely, preservation of minority-voter percentages. The case was appealed directly to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The U.S. Supreme Court held that the district court erred by considering the state as a whole, because racial gerrymandering claims apply on a district-by-district basis. The district had concluded that because race did not predominate in the drawing of many districts, a claim of gerrymandering as to the state “as an undifferentiated whole” could not survive. The Supreme Court emphasized that such an analysis must be done for each district.

The Court then held that the district court erred by sua sponte concluding that the Conference lacked standing without giving the Conference an opportunity to provide evidence of the locations of its members’ residence. The Court instructed the district court to reconsider the issue on remand after allowing the Conference to file its membership list.

As to the predominance inquiry, the Court clarified that “the ‘predominance’ question concerns which voters the legislature decides to choose, and specifically whether the legislature predominately uses race as opposed to other, ‘traditional’ factors when doing so.” Maintaining population equality is not a “traditional” factor but a background principle by which redistricting takes place.

Finally, the Court held that the district court erred in its view that Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act required the states to maintain a particular numerical minority percentage. Instead, the Act requires that minority voters retain their ability to elect their preferred candidates.

The Court remanded the case to the district court to reconsider its decision based on these principles.

Justice Breyer delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Justices Kennedy, Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan joined. Justice Scalia filed a dissenting opinion, in which Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Thomas and Alito joined, and Justice Thomas filed a dissenting opinion.

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