Alabama’s congressional map has been in limbo since June, when the Supreme Court ruled that the State Legislature had drawn it in a way that violated a landmark civil rights law and undercut the power of Black voters.
Now, a panel of three federal judges will decide whether the state’s Republican supermajority, which hastily drew a new map last month, fulfilled the justices’ order to create a second majority-Black district or something “close to it.”
In the new map, Republicans chose to increase the percentage of Black voters in one of the state’s six majority-white congressional districts to about 40 percent from about 30 percent, ignoring an outcry from Democrats and Black residents.
The decision over whether the new map should stand could have national implications, with Republicans controlling the U.S. House of Representatives by a very slim margin. Should the court reject the map, a second majority-Black district would most likely elect a Democrat, since most Black voters in Alabama support those candidates.
Here’s what has happened so far.
How did Alabama decide on the original map?
Every state is required to reconfigure its congressional and state legislative districts after each census, adjusting boundaries to accommodate changes in population.
Those new districts remain in place for a decade and, depending on how they favor one political party or another, they can change the balance of power in the statehouse and the House of Representatives.
After the 2020 census, which showed that more than a quarter of residents in Alabama were Black, legislators maintained a map with only one majority Black district — represented by Terri Sewell, a Black Democrat. Each of state’s six other districts has been represented by a white Republican since 2011.
Several Black voters in the state challenged the map, arguing in part that it violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by diluting their power and denying them an opportunity to elect a representative of their choice.
What did the courts say?
Alabama has a long, troubled history of undercutting or ignoring federal voting and civil rights laws until litigation and courts force its compliance. The state’s existing majority Black district was created in 1992, after a lawsuit.
In early January 2022, a panel of three judges from the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama rejected the congressional map and ordered the drawing of a new one that would allow Black voters a meaningful opportunity to elect a representative of their choice. The new map, the judges wrote, should create a second district that has a majority of Black voters or something “close to it.”
Alabama appealed, and though the Supreme Court agreed to hear arguments in the case, it said the lower court ruling had come too close to the primary elections that year and allowed the map to take effect during the 2022 midterm elections.
The case was widely seen as a test of the remaining core of the Voting Rights Act, which saw some of its central provisions gutted by a 2013 Supreme Court decision. In June, the court surprised many by upholding Section 2 of the law, which prevents discrimination based on race, color or language, and ordering the map to be redrawn.
How did the Alabama Legislature respond?
Gov. Kay Ivey, a Republican, formally summoned lawmakers back to the State Capitol in Montgomery for a five-day special session in July focused on redrawing the map.
The group of plaintiffs who successfully challenged the map backed a new configuration that would create two districts with a majority of Black voters. Black Democrats in the statehouse put forward another proposal that would increase the percentage of Black voters in a second district to nearly 50 percent, arguing that a combination of Democratic-leaning voting blocs would allow Black voters to choose their preferred candidate.
But Republicans made clear that they wanted to protect their six incumbents from a potentially ugly primary in a new district, and created a map that kept certain counties and geographic areas together.
Their plan increased the share of Black voters in one of the state’s six majority-white congressional districts to about 40 percent, and reduced the percentage of Black voters in the one district held by Democrats to 51 percent, from about 55 percent.
Democrats were largely cut out of the process, and opposed the final map.
The panel of judges convened in Birmingham on Monday for a hearing to decide whether the map should remain in place. Dozens of onlookers — including at least one Alabama Democratic lawmaker — filed into the court.
Over a few hours, lawyers for the plaintiffs argued that the state had failed to fully resolve its violation of the Civil Rights Act by not creating a second district with a clear majority of Black voters.
“Alabama has chosen instead to thumb its nose at this court, to thumb its nose at the nation’s highest court and thumb its nose at its own Black citizens,” said Abha Khanna, the head of the Elias Law Group’s redistricting practice and one of the lead lawyers.
Edmund LaCour Jr., the Alabama solicitor general, defended the lawmakers’ new map as one that kept counties with similar regional priorities together and avoided a racial gerrymander.
But the judges repeatedly pressed him on how the map adhered to instructions to create a second district where Black voters could choose a representative of their choice, with one judge wondering if the State Legislature “deliberately disregarded” the prior ruling.
“This is as close as you could get without violating the Constitution,” Mr. LaCour said.
It was unclear how quickly the judges would reach a verdict. State officials have said that a new map needs to be in place by early October to prepare for the 2024 primaries and elections.
Should the court decide that a new map is required, the responsibility for crafting it will fall to a special master, Richard Allen, and a cartographer, David Ely, appointed by the court. (That decision could be appealed, potentially offering the Supreme Court a chance to weigh in again.)
Mr. Allen is a longtime Alabama lawyer who has worked under multiple Republican attorneys general in the state. Mr. Ely, a demographer who runs a firm in California, has worked on other redistricting cases.
The verdict could have far-reaching implications across the South, as several other states confront similar redistricting challenges.