High Court Rebuffs Claim of Partisan SC Redistricting as Race Bias

High Court Rebuffs Claim of Partisan SC Redistricting as Race Bias

Four years after the 2020 census and the redistricting that occurred across the nation, the U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday held that a lower court in South Carolina failed to distinguish between political and racial motivations by that state’s Republican-controlled legislature when lawmakers made slight revisions in the boundary lines of the state’s seven congressional districts to improve GOP election prospects in one in particular, the 1st Congressional District. 

That was a very important holding, because it pushed back on a recurring tactic now being used by Democrats to attack redistricting plans that disadvantage their party politically; namely, falsely claiming that partisan redistricting is tantamount to racial discrimination that violates the Voting Rights Act.

And if you can believe it, this entire case that went all the way to the highest court in the land was over a district in which the legislature increased the projected Republican vote by 1.36% to 54.39% and the black voting-age population from 16.56% to 16.72%.

No, really. 

The NAACP, which acts as an arm of the Democratic Party, made a federal case out of a change in voting percentages of 1.36% and 0.16%!

In Alexander v. South Carolina State Conference of the NAACP, Justice Samuel Alito wrote the majority opinion, joined by five of his colleagues, concluding that the district court’s finding that race dominated the design of the 1st District was clearly erroneous. 

South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District had been a reliably Republican district until a Democrat, Joe Cunningham, was barely elected in 2018 with just 50.7% of the vote.  Republican Nancy Mace took the district back in the 2020 election by another slim margin, just 50.6% of the vote.

Republicans in the state legislature issued guidance after the 2020 census explaining that they would follow “traditional districting principles, such as respect for contiguity and incumbent protection.” However, they “also made it clear that [they] would aim to create a stronger Republican tilt in District 1.” 

The GOP-dominated legislature maintained and protected incumbent Democratic Rep. James Clyburn, who has represented the single majority-minority congressional district in South Carolina since 1993, the 6th, because, as Republican state Sen. George “Chip” Campsen said, Clyburn “has more influence with the Biden administration perhaps than anyone in the nation.” 

The Supreme Court reiterated that courts must distinguish between partisan and racial motivations in redistricting since, as the court previously held in 2019 in Rucho v. Common Cause, partisan motivations are not justiciable in federal court, while racial motivations may be unconstitutional if they were a predominant factor in the redistricting.

The majority chastised the lower court for only paying “lip service” to the rules the court has set out for evaluating this issue in a redistricting case.

In fact, the district court’s “misguided approach infected” that court’s findings, which “were clearly erroneous under the appropriate legal standard.”  In other words, the lower court committed clear error because it failed to disentangle race from politics.

Moreover, Alito wrote, the NAACP did not provide any direct evidence of a racial gerrymander by state legislators and the NAACP’s circumstantial evidence was very weak.

Instead, the NAACP relied on deeply flawed reports by four “experts” who ignored traditional districting criteria such as geographical constraints and the legislature’s partisan interests in strengthening Republican districts.

The NAACP also failed to offer a single alternative map to show that the legislature’s partisan goal could be achieved while raising the black voting population in the challenged district, a requirement that the Supreme Court has laid out in previous redistricting cases.

The NAACP separately claimed that the slight change in the percentage of GOP voters in District 1 diluted the vote of black residents, violating Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.  But the majority found that the district court made the same mistakes in evaluating the vote-dilution claims that it made in evaluating the first claim.

That is, the NAACP failed to show that the state’s redistricting plan had the purpose and effect of diluting the minority vote. In light of these errors, the Supreme Court reversed the lower court decision and remanded the case for further proceedings.

It is probably no surprise that the three liberal justices disagreed.

In a dissent that was joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ketanji Brown Jackson, Justice Elena Kagan urged the court not to second-guess the district court’s factual findings on whether partisanship or race was the predominant factor in the redistricting process by the state legislature.

In her view, the court should have given the district court’s view of events “significant deference” and upheld it as long as it is “plausible.”

At the end of his majority opinion, Alito criticized that  dissent, concluding that none of the points raised by Kagan was “valid.”  That includes her bald assertion—with no evidence to back it up—that the legislators must have used racial data, rather than political data because, the dissenters claim, racial data “is more accurate than political data in predicting future votes” and not using racial data would have required the “self-restraint of a monk.”

But as Alito pointed out, “this jaded view is inconsistent with our case law’s long-standing instruction that the ‘good faith of [the] state legislature must be presumed’ in redistricting cases.”  That is particularly true since “the political data, unlike the racial data that the dissent prefers, took into account voter turnout.”

Alito concluded by saying that “there is no substance to the dissent’s attacks.”

The South Carolina opinion serves as a warning shot across the bows of district court judges who presume bad faith on the part of state legislators and who fail to distinguish between political motivations and racial motivations in the redistricting process.

The Voting Rights Act prohibits racial discrimination in voting, not partisanship, and its provisions should not be abused to achieve political goals.

Original source

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About the Author

Tony Beasley
Tony Beasley writes for the Local News, US and the World Section of ANH.