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Supreme Court Rules for South Carolina Republicans in Voting Map Dispute

Justices say plaintiffs did not prove that the party’s redistricting was racially motivated.

By Susan Frederick  |  May 29, 2024

The U.S. Supreme Court has reversed a lower court decision that found that a South Carolina congressional district had been racially gerrymandered.

In a 6-3 decision written by Justice Samuel Alito, the Supreme Court sent the NAACP’s challenge to South Carolina’s redistricting maps back to the district court for further consideration. The ruling says the lower court erroneously inferred a racial motive in South Carolina’s redistricting of congressional District 1 rather than presuming that the state Legislature acted in good faith.

In a strongly worded dissent joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ketanji Jackson Brown, Justice Elena Kagan said the majority “stack(ed) the deck against the Challengers. They must lose, the majority says, because the State had a ‘possible’ story to tell about not considering race—even if the opposite story was the more credible.” She expresses frustration with the majority opinion and concludes with, “(g)o right ahead, this Court says to States today ... . It will be easy enough to cover your tracks in the end: Just raise a ‘possibility’ of non-race-based decision-making.’”

In the 2022 case of Alexander v. SC Conference of the NAACP, the NAACP’s South Carolina Conference sued state Senate President Thomas Alexander, arguing the Legislature’s map was racially gerrymandered in violation of 14th and 15th amendments. A U.S. District Court unanimously agreed that South Carolina’s reapportionment of District 1 was unconstitutional because it moved 62% of the Black population out of that district and created a racial gerrymander. The lower court also found that the South Carolina Legislature departed from traditional race-neutral districting principles based on expert testimony from the NAACP statistician witness.

The state appealed the case to the Supreme Court, claiming the redistricting plan was not a racial gerrymander because the Legislature’s intent was to create a strong Republican district, not to remove Black voters. South Carolina also argued that because the NAACP did not provide alternative maps that showed the state could achieve its goal in a manner that remedies the constitutional defects of the approved redistricting plan, the district court could not logically conclude the redistricting plan was a racial gerrymander.

The NAACP cited Supreme Court precedent that an alternative map is not necessary to prove the plaintiff’s claim at trial as evidence in equal protection cases if it’s shown that a constitutionally compliant plan can be designed. The NAACP said that the expert witness evidence met its burden of proof.

The U.S. Supreme Court held that any redistricting analysis must start with the presumption that legislatures act in good faith and that parties challenging a map’s constitutionality based on partisanship are outside the federal court’s jurisdiction. “A party challenging a map’s constitutionality must disentangle race and politics if it wishes to prove that the legislature was motivated by race as opposed to partisanship,” the decision says, adding that race must be the legislature’s “predominant motivating factor” behind the redistricting map.

The court reasoned that the NAACP had not met its burden of proof to show that the redistricting map was racially motivated as opposed to the state’s position that its Republican-controlled legislature wanted to ensure that District 1 remained a safe Republican seat. The court instructed the lower court to rule out the possibility that politics, not race, drove the redistricting process.

Susan Frederick is NCSL’s senior federal affairs counsel.

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