HomeLearning CenterSupreme Court’s South Carolina Gerrymander Ruling Has National Implications

Supreme Court’s South Carolina Gerrymander Ruling Has National Implications

Originally published by Patrick Marley, Ann E. Marimow and Justin Jouvenal for The Washington Post

The Supreme Court on Thursday allowed South Carolina to use a congressional map that a lower court had said weakened Black voting rights, bolstering the political fortunes of Republicans as they seek to maintain control of the House of Representatives and making it harder to challenge districts on grounds of racial gerrymandering nationwide.

The 6-3 conservative majority reversed a finding by a three-judge panel that South Carolina’s GOP-led legislature had created an unconstitutional racial gerrymander when it “exiled” thousands of Black voters to another district to carve out one that was safer for a White Republican incumbent. The Supreme Court called the evidence that race motivated lawmakers weak and said courts needed to presume they acted in good faith.

The decision marked a victory for Republicans not only because it cleared the way for a map that is favorable to the GOP in a year when control of the narrowly divided U.S. House is on the line. It also set a high bar for determining when a map can be considered a racial gerrymander, rather than a partisan one. The court has previously found that the Constitution bars racial gerrymandering but that federal courts cannot police partisan gerrymandering.

Legal experts, as well as those who contested South Carolina’s map, said the decision would make it much tougher to challenge maps, especially in light of a Supreme Court ruling five years ago that found federal courts have no authority to strike down maps for giving excessive power to one political party. Under Thursday’s ruling, litigants will have to find overwhelming evidence to prove claims of racial gerrymandering.

Writing for the majority, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. noted many predominantly Black precincts in Charleston were moved out of one district and into another. But “because of the tight correlation between race and partisan preferences, this fact does little to show that race, not politics drove the legislature’s choice,” he wrote.

He was joined by all members of the court nominated by Republican presidents: Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Clarence Thomas, Neil M. Gorsuch, Brett M. Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett.

Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the justices nominated by Democrats, said the majority got it “seriously wrong” by making it easy for state officials to argue they weren’t drawing their maps based on race. She noted that mapmakers sometimes use racial data to shape the partisan makeup of districts and argued some of them “might want to straight-up suppress the electoral influence of minority voters.”

“Go right ahead, this Court says to States today,” Kagan wrote in an opinion joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ketanji Brown Jackson. “Go ahead, though you have no recognized justification for using race, such as to comply with statutes ensuring equal voting rights. Go ahead, though you are (at best) using race as a short-cut to bring about partisan gains — to elect more Republicans in one case, more Democrats in another. It will be easy enough to cover your tracks in the end: Just raise a ‘possibility’ of non-race-based decision-making, and it will be ‘dispositive.’”

Janai Nelson, president the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, said the majority had taken important protections away from Black voters. Her group represents the Black voters who challenged South Carolina’s map.

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