Supreme Court unexpectedly upholds provision prohibiting racial gerrymandering

By Nina Totenberg (NPR)
June 8, 2023 3:33 p.m.
The setting sun illuminates the Supreme Court building on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 10.

The setting sun illuminates the Supreme Court building on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 10.

Patrick Semansky / AP

Updated June 8, 2023 at 10:39 AM ET


The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday stepped back from the brink of totally gutting the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act.

By a vote of 5-4, a coalition of liberal and conservative justices essentially upheld the court's 1986 decision requiring that in states where voting is racially polarized, the legislature must create the maximum number of majority Black or near-majority Black congressional districts, using traditional redistricting criteria.

The opinion does not "diminish or disregard the concern" that the Voting Rights Act "may impermissibly elevate race in the allocation of political power within the States," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority. "Instead, the Court simply holds that a faithful application of precedent and a fair reading of the record do not bear those concerns out here."


The opinion was unexpected. On two previous occasions, the conservative court has acted to gut provisions of the Voting Rights Act, leaving the once-hailed milestone legislation now a hollowed-out shell. But this decision appears to have left redistricting's last remaining guardrail intact, unlike the other provisions that have been struck down or neutered.

At issue was Alabama's congressional redistricting plan, adopted by the Republican-dominated state legislature after the 2020 census. Twenty-seven percent, more than a quarter of the state's population, is African American, but because of the way the congressional district lines are drawn, minority voters have a realistic chance of electing the candidate of their choice in only one out of the state's seven districts.

In January of 2022, a three-judge district court that included two Trump appointees ruled unanimously that under the Voting Rights Act, Alabama should have created not just one, but two compact congressional districts with a majority or close to a majority of Black voters. The three-judge panel said that Alabama had engaged in a classic case of vote dilution by packing Black voters into a single district and spreading the remaining minority voters out over other districts, thus ensuring they had little political power.

The state appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that unless there is intentional discrimination, congressional districts must be drawn without considerations of race, and that the Alabama state legislature had drawn congressional district lines in a race neutral manner. The state noted that it had drawn hundreds of potential maps on a race neutral basis, and that none of them had produced a second majority Black or close to majority Black district.

Black voters countered that under the under the Supreme Court's precedent dating back almost four decades, a racially polarized state must, under the Voting Rights Act, draw district lines that, where possible, allow minority voters the opportunity to elect candidates of their choice.

They noted, for example, that the legislature had no difficulty in creating a second majority Black district for the state school board, and it could have done something similar to create a second majority Black congressional district along the Gulf Coast.

On Thursday, the court agreed.

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