SCOTUS says South Carolina election map doesn't impermissibly exclude Black voters

ByDevin Dwyer ABCNews logo
Thursday, May 23, 2024

The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday upheld a Republican-drawn South Carolina congressional district, reversing lower court rulings that had struck it down as a product of unconstitutional racial gerrymandering that excluded Black voters.

Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the court in a 6-3 ruling from which the liberal justices dissented, said the lower court's decision that race was unconstitutionally used to diminish the influence of Black voters was "clearly erroneous" because it had not properly analyzed the facts.

"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. Second, in assessing a legislature's work, we start with a presumption that the legislature acted in good faith," Alito wrote. "In this case...the three-judge District Court paid only lip service to these propositions."

At issue in the case was South Carolina's 1st Congressional District, which stretches from Savannah and Hilton Head up to Charleston and is represented by Republican Rep. Nancy Mace.

When the district was redrawn after the 2020 census, it moved several predominately Black neighborhoods to the neighboring 6th district. As a result, it was met with a challenge from the South Carolina NAACP and resident Taiwan Scott.

Scott, the only individual plaintiff and a member of the native Gullah community, told ABC News he believed how the new district was drawn was "deliberate" and was "taking our opportunity to elect a representative away from us."

But Justice Alito, writing for the conservative majority, said the "Challengers provided no direct evidence of a racial gerrymander and their circumstantial evidence is very weak."

The ruling ensures that the district will remain solidly Republican in the 2024 election. Under an earlier version of the map, the district had been more evenly divided; a Democrat held the seat as recently as 2018.

Justice Elena Kagan, in dissent, wrote that the Supreme Court showed little respect for the intensive fact-finding of the lower court and its conclusion that removing 30,000 black voters from the district amounted to "bleaching."

"What a message to send to state legislators and mapmakers about racial gerrymandering," Kagan wrote. "Those actors will often have an incentive to use race as a proxy to achieve partisan ends. And occasionally they might want to straight-up suppress the electoral influence of minority voters."

"This odious practice of sorting citizens, built on racial generalizations and exploiting racial divisions, will continue," she continued. "In the electoral sphere especially, where ugly patterns of pervasive racial discrimination have so long governed, we should demand better -- of ourselves, of our political representatives, and most of all of this Court. Respectfully, I dissent."

This was a heavily fact-intensive case, with the Court's conservatives not breaking new ground on racial gerrymandering by setting out a change in the law. Rather, the court was bolstering a "high bar" for challengers to meet in making a claim.

"The plaintiffs failed to meet the high bar for a racial-gerrymandering claim by failing to produce, among other things, an alternative map showing that a rational legislature sincerely driven by its professed, partisan goals would have drawn a different map with greater racial balance," Alito wrote.

The liberal justices warned that the Court was implicitly giving a green light to race discrimination in redistricting by overruling the lower court.

"The proper response to this case is not to throw up novel roadblocks enabling South Carolina to continue dividing citizens along racial lines," Kagan wrote. "It is to respect the plausible - no, the more than plausible - findings of the District Court that the State engaged in race-based districting. And to tell the State that it must redraw District 1, this time without targeting African Americans."

President Joe Biden also criticized the majority's ruling, saying it "undermines the basic principle that voting practices should not discriminate on account of race and that is wrong."

"This decision threatens South Carolinians' ability to have their voices heard at the ballot box, and the districting plan the Court upheld is part of a dangerous pattern of racial gerrymandering efforts from Republican elected officials to dilute the will of Black voters," Biden said in a statement.

Related Topics