A federal court on Thursday approved a new congressional map in Alabama that significantly boosts the Black population of a second district and could represent a pickup opportunity for Democrats in next year’s elections.
The action by the three-judge panel – along with the outcomes of several other closely watched redistricting cases around the country – could help determine which party controls the US House of Representatives after 2024. Republicans currently have a narrow majority in the chamber.
The court’s decision to pick a map that creates a district in a southeastern swath of Alabama with a 48.7% Black voting-age population also concludes this phase of a legal saga that saw the US Supreme Court affirm a key part of the Voting Rights Act, a landmark civil rights law that has been chipped away by conservative justices in recent years.
The Supreme Court’s decision in the Alabama case has reverberated around the country and could influence similar court challenges to Republican-drawn maps now pending in Florida, Louisiana and Georgia.
At issue in the Alabama case: whether the map drawn by the GOP-controlled legislature improperly diluted the political power of Black Alabamians, who make up 27% of the state’s population but have represented the majority of voters in just one of the state’s seven congressional districts. The redistricting fight has drawn national attention – as a test of the potency of the nearly 60-year-old Voting Rights Act and how judges would respond to what critics called open defiance of federal court orders by state officials in Alabama.
Back in June, in a case concerning an earlier map, a divided Supreme Court affirmed a lower-court opinion ordering Alabama to include a second majority-Black district or “something quite close to it” to its seven-seat congressional map.
The 5-4 opinion was penned by Chief Justice John Roberts, who drew the votes of fellow conservative Justice Brett Kavanaugh as well as the court’s three liberal justices.
But when Alabama produced its new map in July, it came under immediate legal challenge because the state, once again, declined to create a second majority-Black district. State legislators instead simply increased the Black percentage to roughly 40% in one of Alabama’s White-majority districts, and in court, state officials acknowledged they had not created a second Black “opportunity” district.
The same three-judge panel, which had overseen the case before it reached the Supreme Court the first time, wrote that it was “disturbed” by Alabama’s actions in the case and invalidated the map.
In Thursday’s order, the federal judges – two of whom were appointed by former President Donald Trump – said they were “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.”
Late last month, the US Supreme Court rebuffed the second effort by Alabama state officials to draw a map without a second Black-majority district or something close to it.
“In spite of the shameful intransigence of Alabama Republicans, justice has finally prevailed in the state,” former US Attorney General Eric Holder, whose National Redistricting Foundation backed the legal challenge against Alabama’s original map, said in a statement.
Holder said the outcome in this case should serve as a sign to other states with pending redistricting cases “that denying equal representation to Black voters, violating the Voting Rights Act, and defying federal court orders is a direct tie to an odious past and will no longer be tolerated.”
In a statement, Alabama Secretary of State Wes Allen, a Republican, said the state would comply with the court’s preliminary injunction to administer the fast-approaching 2024 elections “in accordance with the map the federal court has forced upon Alabama.” Candidates face a November 10 deadline to qualify for Alabama’s March 5 primary elections.
But Allen said the state would continue its legal fight against the map’s use in future elections when judges conduct a full hearing on the underlying merits of the case.
This story has been updated with additional reporting.