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Alabama appeals to the Supreme Court after map dilutes Black voters' power again

Alabama Solicitor General Edmund LaCour (right) speaks alongside Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall after oral arguments in an Alabama congressional redistricting case outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., in 2022.
Patrick Semansky
/
AP
Alabama Solicitor General Edmund LaCour (right) speaks alongside Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall after oral arguments in an Alabama congressional redistricting case outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., in 2022.

Updated September 11, 2023 at 7:56 PM ET

Alabama is once again appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court a lower court ruling that found the state's map of congressional election districts likely violates the Voting Rights Act by weakening Black voters' power.

The extraordinary move comes after a panel of three federal judges struck down Alabama's latest congressional redistricting plan for not following their court order to comply with the landmark civil rights law.

In a court filing on Monday, the state asked the country's highest court to issue an order that would put a temporary block on the lower court's ruling at the latest by Oct. 3. That request came four days later than when the state had said it would submit a filing to the Supreme Court.

Hours earlier on Monday, the panel rejected the state's request for the judges to put a pause on their own ruling while the Supreme Court reviews the appeal.

It's unclear whether the Supreme Court — which upheld the lower court's earlier order about three months ago — is open to revisiting a case that has become a vehicle for not only testing the conservative justices' appetite for undoing the court's past rulings on Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, but also helping to determine which party controls the next U.S. House of Representatives.

Alabama is also appealing the three-judge panel's latest ruling to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

What the federal judges said in their new ruling

Inan order released on Sept. 5, the three federal judges said they are "deeply troubled that the State enacted a map that the State readily admits does not provide the remedy we said federal law requires."

"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," said U.S. Circuit Judge Stanley Marcus, U.S. District Judge Anna Manasco and U.S. District Judge Terry Moorer. "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."

For the 2024 elections, the judges haveassigned court-appointed experts to draw three potential maps that each include two districts where Black voters have a realistic opportunity of electing their preferred candidate. Those redistricting proposals are due to the court by Sept. 25.

All sides in this case will be able to challenge the proposals produced by the court's "special master" and cartographer, thejudges have said. A hearing on any objections is tentatively set for Oct. 3.

Back to the U.S. Supreme Court?

The state of Alabama hadpreviously signaled in court filings it would appeal this kind of ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"We intend to promptly seek review from the Supreme Court to ensure that the State can use its lawful congressional districts in 2024 and beyond," Amanda Priest, spokesperson for Alabama's state attorney general, said on Sept. 5 in a statement.

The panel's latest ruling is part of a long-running legal fight over a redistricting plan that could help change the balance of power in the U.S. House after next year's elections.

Before reviewing the congressional map passed by Alabama's Republican-controlled legislature in July, the three judges threw out an earlier redistricting plan approved by state lawmakers after finding that it likely violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act by diluting the power of Alabama's Black voters.

Out of the state's seven congressional voting districts, that plan included only one opportunity district for Black voters in a state where Black people make up more than a quarter of the state's residents.

The judgesordered instead a new map with two opportunity districts for Black voters, and Black Alabamians, they noted, would need to make up the majority of the voting-age population or "something quite close to it" in each of those districts, given how racially polarized voting is in the state. In Alabama, the panel has found, majority-Black districts are likely to elect Democrats and majority-white districts are likely to elect Republicans.

The state is facing a looming logistical deadline for next year's races. Alabama's top election official — Secretary of State Wes Allen, a Republican — hastold the court that finalizing a redistricting plan by around Oct. 1 "would provide enough time to reassign voters, print and distribute ballots, and otherwise conduct the forthcoming 2024 primary elections based on the new map."

The legal battle over Alabama's congressional districts is expected to continue with a court trial about the map that will be used for the 2026 elections.

Gulf States Newsroom reporter Stephan Bisaha contributed to this report.

Edited by Benjamin Swasey

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Hansi Lo Wang (he/him) is a national correspondent for NPR reporting on the people, power and money behind the U.S. census.