US Supreme Court backs S. Carolina Republicans in race-based voting map fight

FILE PHOTO: South Carolina residents participate in early voting during the Republican presidential primary

By John Kruzel and Andrew Chung

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The U.S. Supreme Court made it harder on Thursday to prove racial discrimination in electoral maps in a major ruling backing South Carolina Republicans who moved out 30,000 Black residents when they redrew a congressional district.

The 6-3 decision, with the conservative justices in the majority and liberal justices dissenting, reversed a lower court's ruling that the map had violated the rights of Black voters under the U.S. Constitution's 14th Amendment, which guarantees equal protection under the law. Conservative Justice Samuel Alito wrote the decision.

The liberal justices expressed alarm that the decision makes it more difficult for legal challengers - who in this case included the NAACP civil rights group, the American Civil Liberties Union and Black voters - to demonstrate that an electoral map unconstitutionally discriminates based on race.

"What a message to send to state legislators and mapmakers" who often have incentives to use race to achieve partisan ends or suppress the electoral influence of racial minorities, Justice Elena Kagan wrote in a dissent joined by the two other liberals. "Go right ahead, this court says to states today."

President Joe Biden, a Democrat, said the ruling "undermines the basic principle that voting practices should not discriminate on account of race."

"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 added.

Gerrymandering involves the manipulation of the geographical boundaries of electoral districts to marginalize a certain set of voters and increase the influence of others. In this case, the Republican-controlled state legislature was accused of racial gerrymandering to reduce the influence of Black voters.

The fight centered on the boundaries drawn in 2022 by the legislature for one of South Carolina's seven U.S. House of Representatives districts. The new map increased the district's share of white voters while reducing its share of Black voters, which the lower court called "bleaching."

Black voters tend to support Democratic candidates.

Alito wrote that there was "no direct evidence" that race predominated in the design of the district and that "circumstantial evidence falls far short of showing that race, not partisan preferences, drove the districting process."

The Supreme Court sided with South Carolina Republicans who had argued that the district, which includes parts of Charleston along the Atlantic coast, was drawn to achieve partisan advantage. The Supreme Court in 2019 decided that map-making for partisan gain was not reviewable by federal courts - unlike redistricting mainly motivated by race, which remains illegal.

The boundaries of legislative districts across the country are redrawn to reflect population changes every decade. In most states, redistricting is done by the party in power.

The lower court in March, because of the length of time it took the Supreme Court to act after hearing arguments in October, decided that the disputed map could be used in the Nov. 5 U.S. election that will decide which party controls the House.

Using this map could undercut Democratic chances of regaining a House majority after losing it in 2022. Republicans hold a 217-213 majority. Every competitive district could be crucial to the outcome, with legal battles over redistricting in various states still playing out.


A federal three-judge panel in January 2023 ruled that the map at issue unlawfully sorted voters by race and deliberately split up Black neighborhoods in Charleston County in a "stark racial gerrymander."

Alito wrote that the panel took a "misguided approach." Alito also said that lower courts should be skeptical when challengers like those in this case fail to produce an alternative map capable of achieving a legislature's "legitimate political objectives" but with greater racial balance.

"A plaintiff's failure to submit an alternative map - precisely because it can be designed with ease - should be interpreted by district courts as an implicit concession that the plaintiff cannot draw a map that undermines the legislature's defense that the districting lines were 'based on a permissible, rather than a prohibited, ground,'" Alito wrote.

The ruling also threw out the lower court's finding that the map had intentionally diluted the electoral power of Black voters, ordering it to reconsider that issue using stringent criteria under Supreme Court precedents.

"We should demand better - of ourselves, of our political representatives, and most of all of this court," Kagan wrote, adding that the ruling "thwarts efforts to undo a pernicious kind of race-based discrimination," and is "meant to scuttle gerrymandering cases."

Republican South Carolina state senator Thomas Alexander, one of the parties who defended the map, said the court "affirmed the hard work of South Carolina senators and the product they produced as constitutional."

The map shifted 30,000 Black residents from South Carolina's 1st congressional district into the neighboring 6th district, the state's only House district represented by a Democrat. With the 1st district's previous boundaries, Republican Nancy Mace only narrowly defeated an incumbent Democrat in 2020. With the redistricting, Mace comfortably won re-election in 2022.

(Reporting by John Kruzel; Editing by Will Dunham)