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Supreme Court hears arguments in case that could further decimate Voting Rights Act


The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments today in a case that could further decimate the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act. It was passed and twice renewed by Congress. It protects racial minorities from discrimination in voting. In the last decade, the court's conservative majority has struck down or neutered key provisions of the law. And today, the question was whether to deliver another blow. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: At issue was Alabama's congressional redistricting plan adopted by the Republican state legislature after the 2020 census. More than a quarter of the state's population is African American, but in only 1 out of 7 districts do minority voters have a realistic chance of electing the candidate of their choice.

In January, a three-judge federal court panel, including two Trump appointees, ruled unanimously that under the Voting Rights Act, Alabama should create not just one, but two compact congressional districts with a majority or close to a majority of Black voters. The state appealed to the Supreme Court, where today, Solicitor General Edmund LaCour contended that unless there is evidence of intentional race discrimination, congressional districts must be drawn without considerations of race. Justice Kagan interrupted.


ELENA KAGAN: We once, long ago, said that intent was required, and Congress immediately slapped us down and said, no, we didn't mean that.

TOTENBERG: Indeed, Congress amended the Voting Rights Act in 1982 to make clear that the voting rights law was aimed at eliminating discriminatory results. Here, the lower court ruled that Alabama's original map had the effect of diluting the political power of minority voters by lumping a supermajority of them into a single district and spreading the remaining minority voters out over the other districts. It's known as packing and cracking. Kagan said today's case is a classic voter dilution claim.


KAGAN: And you're asking us, essentially, to cut back substantially on our 40 years of precedent and to make this too extremely difficult to prevail on. So what's left?

TOTENBERG: Justice Jackson pointed to the history of the 14th and 15th Amendments enacted after the Civil War to guarantee political power to formerly enslaved people.


KETANJI BROWN JACKSON: When I drilled down to that level of analysis, it became clear to me that the framers themselves adopted the Equal Protection Clause, the 14th Amendment, the 15th Amendment in a race-conscious way. I don't think that the historical record establishes that the founders believed that race neutrality or race blindness was required.

TOTENBERG: But Alabama's LaCour stuck to his guns, arguing that the lower court decision requiring the creation of a second majority-Black district is unconstitutional because race was the predominant factor in its creation. In contrast, he argued, the state legislature's original map with only one majority-Black district is race neutral. Rebutting that argument was Deuel Ross, senior counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, who cited the factual findings of the lower court.


DEUEL ROSS: There is nothing race neutral about Alabama's map. The Black Belt is a historic and extremely poor community of substantial significance, yet Alabama's map cracks that community and allows white-Black voting to deny Black voters the opportunity to elect representation responsive to their needs.

TOTENBERG: Where Alabama's LaCour argued that the creation of the second district would break up the Gulf part of the state into two dissimilar districts, the NAACP's lawyer countered that the legislature had no difficulty in simultaneously creating essentially the same two districts but for the state school board. For the most part, the court's three liberals dominated today's arguments. The six conservatives didn't tip their hands, though their records indicate they likely do have a hand to play. They probably won't adopt the state's relatively extreme position of racial neutrality in provisions of the Voting Rights Act, provisions which, after all, were written to ensure greater political power for long-suppressed racial minorities. But as election law expert Rick Hasen observes, Alabama may well get something almost as good; namely, a new legal framework that makes it much harder for minority plaintiffs to get full representation in congressional and other legislative districts.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.