The Supreme Court delivered a rare victory for minority voting rights Wednesday, finding that a 2012 Alabama redistricting plan appeared to violate federal law by shifting black voters into districts they already dominated to dilute their influence elsewhere.
Justice Stephen G. Breyer, writing for the court, said there was "strong, perhaps overwhelming, evidence" that in at least one state Senate district, race had been used impermissibly as a criteria, and that other districts had apparently been drawn in a similar manner.
The case, decided 5 to 4, forced justices for the first time to address complaints by African Americans that a tactic they once advocated to improve minority representation in white-dominated Southern states — gerrymandering voting districts to create black majorities — was now being used against them to limit their overall voice in the Legislature.
The ruling sent the case back to a special three-judge court to evaluate each Alabama district in contention, using different legal guidelines that voting rights experts said would probably affect other pending redistricting challenges, including in North Carolina and Virginia.
"The reason this matters is because what happened in Alabama happened in a lot of states in the post-2010 redistricting," said Eric Schnapper, an attorney who argued the case on behalf of the Alabama Democratic Conference. "They were moving thousands of black voters into districts that already had a majority of black voters."
Critics of the Alabama plan said state Republicans were trying to reduce the potential influence of African Americans in other districts.
Alabama officials argued they were merely following federal guidelines set in the 1990s by the Justice Department, which at the time supported the use of race-based districts as a way to increase the number of elected black officials in Congress and state legislatures.
The court majority said Alabama's plan appeared to have relied too heavily on racial factors in some cases. When the Republican-controlled Legislature reapportioned one district based on the 2010 census, it added 15,785 people to the already majority black district. Of those, only 36 were white, which Breyer called "a remarkable feat given the local demographics."
Breyer's opinion was joined by the court's three other liberals and its frequent swing vote, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy.
In 2013, Kennedy joined the court's conservatives in another voting rights case from Alabama, Shelby County vs. Holder. That decision struck down a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, declaring that Southern states no longer needed preapproval from the Justice Department to alter voting laws. Civil rights groups called that ruling a significant blow to the landmark law.
On Wednesday, dissenting Justice Antonin Scalia called the majority's decision a "sweeping holding that will have profound implications" in the future for the Voting Rights Act, the constitutional principle of "one person, one vote," and states' rights.
"If the court's destination seems fantastical, just wait until you see the journey," Scalia said in an opinion joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Clarence Thomas. "The consequences of this unprincipled decision will reverberate far beyond the narrow circumstances presented in this case."
Thomas said in a separate dissent that "this is nothing more than a fight over the 'best' racial quota."
"I do not pretend that Alabama is blameless when it comes to its sordid history of racial politics," wrote Thomas, who grew up in segregated Georgia. "But today the state is not the one that is culpable. Its redistricting effort was indeed tainted, but it was tainted by our voting rights jurisprudence and the uses to which the Voting Rights Act has been put."