Judges reject Alabama’s congressional lines, will draw new districts to increase Black voting power

FILE - A line of people wait outside the federal courthouse in Birmingham, Ala., on Monday, Aug. 14, 2023. to watch a redistricting hearing. Federal judges said Tuesday, Sept. 5, that they will draft new congressional lines for Alabama after lawmakers refused to create a second district where Black voters at least came close to comprising a majority, as suggested by the court. (AP Photo/Kim Chandler) (Kim Chandler)

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Federal judges said Tuesday that they will draft new congressional lines for Alabama after lawmakers refused to create a second district where Black voters at least came close to comprising a majority, as suggested by the court.

In blocking the newly drawn congressional map, the three-judge panel wrote that they are “deeply troubled” that Alabama lawmakers flouted their instruction to create a second majority-Black district or something close to it. The panel directed a court-appointed special master to submit three proposed new maps by Sept. 25.

“The law requires the creation of an additional district that affords Black Alabamians, like everyone else, a fair and reasonable opportunity to elect candidates of their choice. The 2023 Plan plainly fails to do so,” the judges wrote in the ruling.

Alabama indicated in a court filing that it will ask the U.S. Supreme Court — which previously upheld the panel's findings in the case — to put the order on hold while it appeals, according to a court filing.

“While we are disappointed in today’s decision, we strongly believe that the Legislature’s map complies with the Voting Rights Act and the recent decision of the U.S. Supreme Court,” Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall’s office said in a statement.

The Republican-controlled Alabama Legislature hastily drew new lines this summer after the U.S. Supreme Court in June upheld the panel’s finding that the map — that had one majority-Black district out of seven in a state where 27% of residents are Black — likely violated the U.S. Voting Rights Act.

The three-judge panel, in striking down Alabama’s map in 2022, said the state should have two districts where Black voters have an opportunity to elect their preferred candidates. Because of racially polarized voting in the state, that map would need to include a second district where Black voters are the majority or “something quite close,” the judges wrote.

Alabama lawmakers in July passed a new map that maintained a single majority-Black district and boosted the percentage of Black voters in another district, District 2, from about 30% to almost 40%.

“We are not aware of any other case in which a state legislature — faced with a federal court order declaring that its electoral plan unlawfully dilutes minority votes and requiring a plan that provides an additional opportunity district — responded with a plan that the state concedes does not provide that district,” the judges wrote in the ruling rejecting the new map.

The group of Black voters who filed one of the two lawsuits that led to the order likened Alabama’s defiance in the case to that of segregationist Gov. George Wallace, who unsuccessfully tried to defy court orders to desegregate.

“Our nation’s highest court required Alabama to draw a map to fairly represent Black voters — yet the state refused. Alabama openly admits its intention to defy the law and the U.S. Supreme Court. But we will not back down,” the plaintiffs said in a statement.

In a hearing last month, all three judges pointedly questioned the state's solicitor general about the state's refusal to create a second majority-Black district.

Alabama argued the map complied with the Voting Rights Act and the Supreme Court decision in the case. The state argued that justices did not require the creation of a second majority-Black district if doing so would mean violating traditional redistricting principles, such as keeping communities of interest together.

“District 2 is as close as you are going to get to a second majority-Black district without violating the Supreme Court's decision,” Alabama Solicitor General Edmund LaCour said during oral arguments.

The responsibility for drawing new proposed lines will fall to the appointed special master Richard Allen, who previously worked for several Alabama attorneys general, and cartographer, David R. Ely.

“The court has once again confirmed that Black voters deserve two opportunity districts. We look forward to ensuring that the special master draws a map that provides Black voters with the full representation in Congress that they deserve,” said Deuel Ross, an attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Ross argued the case before the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Alabama ruling — and the effort to get the case back before the Supreme Court — comes as redistricting cases play out in Georgia, South Carolina and elsewhere.

“What happened in Alabama this summer underscores the necessity for the judiciary to continue to be unwavering in its obligations to enforce the critical protections of the Voting Rights Act in order for justice to ultimately prevail,” said former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, chairman of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, which backed one of the court challenges in Alabama.