In 2010, Republicans gained control of the Alabama legislature for the first time in 136 years. The redistricting maps drawn by Republicans following the 2010 election preserved the thirty-five majority-minority districts in the Alabama legislature—represented overwhelmingly by black Democrats—and in some cases actually increased the number of minority voters in those districts.
For example, State Senator Quinton Ross, a black Democrat elected in 2002, represented a district in Montgomery that was 72 percent African-American before the redistricting process. His district was under-populated by 16,000 people, so the Alabama legislature moved 14,806 African-Americans and thirty-six whites into his seat. The new district was now over 75 percent black and excluded white neighborhoods that were previously in Ross’s district.
Republicans claimed they were merely complying with the Voting Rights Act. Black Democrats challenged the redistricting maps as an unconstitutional racial gerrymander and took the case to the Supreme Court. Today the Court, in a 5-4 decision written by Justice Breyer, sided with the black plaintiffs and ordered a district court in Alabama to reexamine whether specific districts, like Ross’s, were improperly drawn with race as the predominant factor. The decision was released, interestingly enough, on the same day as the fiftieth anniversary of the march from Selma to Montgomery.
“The record indicates that plaintiffs’ evidence and arguments embody the claim that individual majority-minority districts were racially gerrymandered, and those are the districts that the District Court must reconsider,” Breyer wrote. Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act (which the Supreme Court gutted in 2013, in another case from Alabama) did not compel the legislature to preserve the exact number of minority voters in a given district or inflate those numbers. “Section 5 does not require a covered jurisdiction to maintain a particular numerical minority percentage. It requires the jurisdiction to maintain a minority’s ability to elect a preferred candidate of choice,” Breyer said. The court’s majority—joined by Justice Kennedy—sympathized with the plaintiffs’ claim that Alabama’s interpretation of the VRA may “harm the very minority voters that Acts such as the Voting Rights Act sought to help.”
Justices Scalia and Thomas dissented. “We have somehow arrived at a place where the parties agree that Alabama’s legislative districts should be fine-tuned to achieve some ‘optimal’ result with respect to black voting power; the only disagreement is about what percentage of blacks should be placed in those optimized districts. This is nothing more than a fight over the ‘best’ racial quota,” wrote Thomas.