A Supreme Court that’s grown increasingly deferential to state legislatures in redistricting, even when they draw lines in obnoxiously partisan ways, ruled Thursday that Alabama ran afoul of the federal Voting Rights Act by diluting the power of Black voters. It’s an important correction that should — but almost surely won’t — signal the judiciary’s willingness to serve as a check on more of the pernicious ways in which vote counts are effectively rigged.
The Constitution generally gives states the power to draw congressional district lines. But there are limits: The federal judiciary has rightly ruled redistricting illegal when it violates the 1965 statute designed to protect the franchise for citizens regardless of their race.
Largely ignoring that law, Alabama’s Republican legislature in 2021 redrew congressional districts and continued just one district among seven where Blacks constitute the voting majority, despite their comprising 27% of Alabamians. After the lower federal district court last year determined that was an affront to federal law, the Supreme Court let the existing map stand for the 2022 elections.
Better late than never, the high court just snapped out of its slumber. Chief Justice John Roberts, joined by Justice Brett Kavanaugh and the court’s three reliable liberals — Justices Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor and Ketanji Brown Jackson — wrote that the lower court “faithfully applied our precedents and correctly determined that, under existing law,” Alabama’s line-drawing “violated” section 2 of the VRA.
It’s an exception to the rule. In recent years, rather than telling states that they’re running afoul of federal constitutional or statutory requirements, the court’s conservatives have largely ceased protecting voters from the politicians who, aided by ever-more-sophisticated data-driven line drawing, are getting bolder and more sophisticated at weakening the foundations of fair, representative democracy. The low point was the 2019, 5-4 decision declaring that the federal judiciary has no authority whatsoever over claims that aggressive partisan gerrymandering violates citizens’ rights.
For government of, by and for the people to mean anything, voters must pick politicians and not the other way around.