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Supreme Court throws out race claim in South Carolina redistricting case in win for GOP

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that South Carolina Republicans did not unlawfully consider race when they drew a congressional district in a way that excluded thousands of black voters, in a decision that makes it more difficult for civil rights plaintiffs to bring charges of racist crimes. .

The court, divided 6-3 on ideological lines with conservatives in the majority, said civil rights groups had not done enough to show that lawmakers were focused on race in drawing the area district. Charleston currently represented by Representative Nancy Mace, a Republican.

As the Supreme Court considered the case, much more slowly than expected, the lower court that struck down the map said it could be used for this year’s elections.

The justices’ decision will therefore not have an immediate impact in South Carolina, but it sets the rules of conduct for future redistricting efforts. The ruling will make it easier to draw maps that disadvantage black voters, as long as mapmakers can show they are focused on policy, not race.

In the South, black voters tend to be Democratic, so it can be difficult to separate race from politics.

Leah Aden, an attorney with the civil rights group Legal Defense Fund who argued the case before the Supreme Court on behalf of the plaintiffs, said the decision was “discouraging not only for our case, but also for others cases” because the Supreme Court has now given up relying on evidence that it had previously said could be reliable.

“The bar continues to be moved, and it becomes more and more difficult for plaintiffs to eradicate racial discrimination,” she added.

The court sided with Republican state officials who said their only goal was to increase Republican leaning in the district.

South Carolina Senate President Thomas Alexander praised the decision, saying the redistricting plan was “meticulously crafted to comply with statutory and constitutional requirements.”

The ruling means Mace’s district won’t have to be redrawn, dealing a blow to Democrats hoping for a more favorable map. Litigation over a separate claim brought by the plaintiffs against the card may continue.

Because of the Supreme Court’s decision, Rep. Nancy Mace, R-S.C., will not need to redraw her congressional district.Tom Williams / CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

Writing for the majority, conservative Justice Samuel Alito wrote that “no direct evidence” supported the lower court’s conclusion that race was a key factor in drawing the map.

“The circumstantial evidence falls far short of demonstrating that race, not partisan preferences, motivated the districting process,” he added.

Alito added that state lawmakers should be given the benefit of the doubt when confronted with claims that the maps were drawn with discriminatory intent.

“We should not rush to level such accusations against the political branches,” he wrote.

In dissent, liberal Justice Elena Kagan wrote that the majority had “rolled the dice” against the challengers. arguing that evidence of the impact on black voters can easily be ignored if the state can offer an alternative narrative insisting that voters were divided based on partisan interests.

“What a message to send to state legislators and mappers on racial gerrymandering,” she added.

The message to politicians who “might want to remove the electoral influence of minority voters altogether” is: “Go for it,” Kagan said.

Conservative Justice Clarence Thomas agreed with Alito’s findings, but said in a separate opinion that he would go even further and hold that courts have no role in considering constitutional challenges to voting districts.

“Drawing political districts is a task for politicians, not federal judges,” he wrote.

Rick Hasen, an election law expert at UCLA Law School, said this ruling, and others on voting issues decided by the Supreme Court in recent years, “make it much more difficult” for minority voters to win election-related lawsuits.

In the South Carolina case, the Supreme Court was reviewing a January 2023 lower court ruling that found race was a predominant concern in drawing one of the state’s seven districts.

Republicans redrew the boundaries after the 2020 census to strengthen GOP control of what had become a competitive district.

Democrat Joe Cunningham won the seat in 2018 and narrowly lost to Mace in 2020. Two years later, with a new map in place, Mace won by a wider margin.

The approximately 30,000 black voters who were moved out of the district were placed in the district held by Democratic Rep. James Clyburn, who is black. It is the only one of South Carolina’s seven congressional districts held by Democrats.

Civil rights groups alleged not only that Republicans illegally considered race when drawing the maps, but also diluted the power of black voters in doing so. It is this last complaint which remains unresolved, the plaintiffs’ lawyers having declared on Thursday that they did not yet know how to proceed.

The allegation of racial gerrymandering was filed under the Constitution’s 14th Amendment, which requires the law to apply equally to everyone. The case grew out of a different legal theory than last year’s major ruling in which civil rights advocates successfully challenged Republican-drawn maps in Alabama under the Voting Rights Act.

It was already difficult to challenge legislative district maps even before Thursday’s decision, and not just on racial grounds.

In a 2019 case on a related issue, the Supreme Court made it impossible for plaintiffs to challenge districts in federal court as partisan gerrymanders drawn to strengthening the political power of sitting politicians. Congress could potentially pass legislation that would impose rules on redistricting, but with Republican opposition, that could happen before long.

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