HomeLearning CenterMeet the Black woman who argued South Carolina’s redistricting case before the Supreme Court

Meet the Black woman who argued South Carolina’s redistricting case before the Supreme Court

Originally published by Donna M. Owens for NBC

During Leah Aden’s first oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court in a redistricting case that critics have branded “textbook” racial gerrymandering, several justices peppered the attorney with rapid-fire, probing questions about South Carolina’s contested congressional map. 

Yet Aden, senior counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, or LDF, didn’t flinch. 

“I’ve always wanted to do impact work,” said Aden, who argued Alexander v. South Carolina State Conference of the NAACP, a case whose outcome will determine South Carolina’s congressional map and could have larger implications on the 2024 election. “I’ve lived with this case from the ground up.”

The new map passed by South Carolina’s General Assembly was signed into law by the state’s governor in January 2022. Civil rights advocates quickly challenged the map  as a racial gerrymander allegedly designed with a discriminatory purpose under the 14th and 15th amendments of the U.S. Constitution. 

In January 2023, the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina unanimously found that the South Carolina legislature sought to diminish Black voting power, purportedly by shuffling thousands of Black Charlestonians from District 1, where Republican Rep. Nancy Mace holds the seat, to District 6, long represented by Rep. James Clyburn, a top Democrat and the state’s lone Black congressman.

In May, South Carolina’s legislature, led by state Senate President Thomas Alexander, appealed the lower court’s decision, bringing the case to the Supreme Court. 

In a brief to the court, the LDF argued that redrawing the map could have been accomplished more equitably. Instead, it said, the defendants “moved almost 53,000 people into the already overpopulated CD1, and then another 140,000 people out. In doing so, Defendants ‘bleached’ Charleston County of 62% of its Black residents, more than 30,000 people, removing every precinct but one with more than 1,000 Black voters.”

Appearing before the high court earlier this month, Aden reiterated the lower court’s finding of “stark racial gerrymandering.”

The South Carolina lawmakers, she argued, were “consistently looking at race because they had an expectation that race was a predictor of how political parties would perform.”

“In light of the total record, it reflects that there was a racial target, it reflects that there was a significant sorting of Black people, it reflects unrebutted expert evidence of race rather than party explaining the assignment of voters, it reflects a disregard of traditional redistricting principles — and all of that evidence in total is more than plausible, in the record, for using race as a means to harm individual plaintiffs,” she told the justices.

Citing case law, a brief from the defendants asserted that because redistricting “is primarily the duty and responsibility of the State,” federal courts must “exercise extraordinary caution in adjudicating claims that a State has drawn district lines on the basis of race.” The brief further expounded that “States must have discretion to exercise the political judgment necessary to balance competing interests,” including the “political considerations … inseparable from redistricting.”

Some of the Supreme Court’s conservatives, who hold a 6-3 majority, suggested during the two-hour proceedings that the plaintiffs may not have sufficient evidence that state lawmakers were focused on race in redrawing the map. Chief Justice John Roberts noted the “very, very difficult” standard of “disentangling” race and politics; while liberal Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson countered that the plaintiffs did not have to present a “smoking gun” to argue that race was the state’s focus when redrawing the map. 

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