At oral arguments Wednesday, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority expressed reservations that South Carolina’s congressional design is an illegal racial gerrymander.
The case is among several racial and political gerrymandering-related cases that could influence which party controls the House following the congressional elections next year.
The issue revolves around a newly redesigned congressional district that includes Republican Rep. Nancy Mace, who defeated a Democrat in 2020 but whose new district beneath the proposal cements a GOP tilt. She is frequently criticized for defying her party, yet she voted with a tiny group of conservative Republicans to remove former Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) from the party’s top leadership job.
Federal courts are not permitted to entertain claims challenging partisan gerrymanders, or maps created to promote one political party or the other, per Supreme Court precedent. However, federal courts may entertain challenges to racial gerrymandering – maps designed to reduce the political influence of a specific race’s votes. A lower court overturned the South Carolina plan, ruling that while the state’s GOP-controlled legislature’s purpose was to maintain Republican control of the state’s First Congressional District, its legislature did so by removing Black voters from the district.
On Wednesday, many conservative judges claimed the map drawers had considered politics rather than race.
According to Chief Justice John Roberts, petitioners challenging the map had “no direct” proof that race had a role in the way decisions were made. He claimed that no “odd-shaped” districts had been formed and that there was a “wealth of political data” to support the chosen borders. He claimed the challengers had merely produced “circumstantial evidence” and suggested that siding with them would be “breaking new ground” in voting jurisprudence.
The plan proposed by Republican state lawmakers relocated over 30,000 Black Charleston-area people out of the state’s 1st Congressional District, which Mace presently represents.
South Carolina is one of several southern states whose congressional districts are being challenged for racial gerrymandering or vote dilution, a sweeping series of lawsuits that could affect House control, especially with such a small political gap.
Another well-established legal norm should help the plaintiffs in Alexander. When a trial court rules that a legislative map is an unlawful racial gerrymander, the Court rules in Cooper that the lower court’s findings of fact — most significantly, how racial considerations ruled in establishing district lines — are open to review only for manifest error.
The South Carolina Republican legislators claim the lines were adjusted for party purposes, but a three-judge panel overturned the map, saying that race was the primary motivating factor because the mapmaker utilized a racial target.
During the almost two-hour hearing on Wednesday, the Supreme Court’s conservatives grilled an attorney who represented a Black voter and a racial justice organization about how they could separate race from politics, given how tightly the two are linked.
Republicans, according to Justice Sonia Sotomayor, were taking “potshots” at the experts who stated the maps were only understood by race. The challengers are not obliged to provide a “smoking gun” to support their claim, according to Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson.
In a racial gerrymandering case, appellate courts, especially the Supreme Court, may rectify a lower court that uses the incorrect legal rule. However, the Supreme Court is required to defer to the lower court’s factual judgments as to how and why a legislative map was constructed in the manner that it was drawn.
The Court Justice Alito’s Statement
Justice Samuel Alito frequently argued that a previous court erred in striking the map by relying on incorrect expert testimony. He stated that the Supreme Court could not “rubber-stamp” the district court’s decision and he pointed out that the person in charge of drafting the maps had years of expertise and worked with both Democrats and Republicans.
Alito claimed that “nothing suspicious” existed if a map drawer was conscious of race as long as it was not a major influence when drawing lines.