Court to review Alabama’s ‘race-based’ reapportionment

The Supreme Court said Monday that it will review Alabama’s legislative reapportionment plan, accepting a challenge from the state’s Democrats and African American legislators that the new plan was an attempt to limit minority effectiveness.

The challengers said the state’s ruling Republicans packed too many minority voters into too few districts — ensuring minority representation in those districts but harming the chances for influence elsewhere.

A three-judge federal panel had rejected the challenges filed by the Alabama Legislative Black Caucus and the Alabama Democratic Conference. That court agreed with Alabama, ruling 2 to 1 that the legislature had successfully navigated a “political thicket” by obeying federal laws and the Constitution regarding redistricting while at the same time ensuring minority representation.

Alabama has one of the nation’s highest percentages of African Americans serving in the state legislature.

But the challengers said Republicans who control the state’s political leadership in effect supplied too much of a good thing. Districts with a minority population that would ensure the election of an African American were packed with even more black voters, raising the proportions to more than 70 percent.

The new voters often came from districts where they might help elect a Democrat, the challenges say. In effect, it means virtually no districts are conducive to the election of a white Democrat, and the legislature’s blacks find themselves without partners to influence public policy, the challengers say.

That has created an unusual situation in which it is minority groups that are saying the state paid too much attention to race when drawing districts.

“When considering whether it is constitutional to take account of race in redistricting, the law is — and always has been — sensible enough to recognize a distinction between what is reasonably necessary to make voting fair, and what is not,” said the petition from the Alabama Democratic Caucus.

Joe Reed, chairman of the conference, told the Associated Press that the Republican-designed districts were drawn to reduce the number of black voters in ­majority-white districts.

“They were doing their level best to wipe out white Democrats,” Reed said. “They were trying their best to have a legislature of white Republicans and black Democrats, and then they could ignore the black Democrats.”

Such arguments have sometimes created tensions between minority groups and the Democrats they most often favor, said Nathaniel Persily, a redistricting expert and Stanford University law professor.

Black incumbents especially want to make sure that districts remain safe for reelection, while other Democrats want minority voters more dispersed to increase the party’s chances of winning more races, he said. In Alabama, the two sides seem to be in agreement.

But the three-judge panel said Alabama proved that the changes it made to the redistricting map were to make sure the districts complied with another constitutional mandate — that they be equal in size.

At the time the plan was finalized, Alabama was required by the Voting Rights Act to get the Justice Department’s approval before the new maps could be implemented, and the department complied. Last June, the Supreme Court tossed the part of the Voting Rights Act that required “preclearance” in some states with a history of discrimination, most of them in the South.

Persily said the Alabama case will be the first time Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., both of whom are skeptical of racial classifications, have confronted the question of how race may be considered in redistricting decisions.

Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange (R) said the state had complied with constitutional concerns and with the Voting Rights Act. The state’s plan has eight of the 35 Senate districts and 28 of the 105 House districts with a majority of black residents, just as it was when Democrats controlled redistricting.

“My office has been defending the constitutionality of these districts since they were enacted by the legislature and precleared by the Department of Justice, and we will continue to do so in the U.S. Supreme Court,” Strange said in a statement after the justices announced they would review the case in the term starting in October.

Alabama voters go to the polls Tuesday for primaries in the redrawn districts. It seems likely the November elections also will take place under the new map.

The combined cases are Alabama Legislative Black Caucus v. Alabama and Alabama Democratic Conference v. Alabama.

Robert Barnes has been a Washington Post reporter and editor since 1987. He has covered the Supreme Court since November 2006.
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