Clarence Thomas led a dissenting opinion in the Supreme Court’s ruling Thursday that unexpectedly upheld an existing voting rights law in Alabama by summarily rejecting a racial gerrymandering case seeking Congressional redistricting that critics say would have adversely affected Black voting power.
The conservative-leaning Supreme Court voted 5-4 in Merrill v. Milligan, a case led by Republicans that would have weakened the Voting Rights Act. Instead, the decision reaffirmed the landmark legislation and means seven majority Republican voting district lines will be redrawn ahead of next year’s general election. It also could have vast implications for other states and place pressure on Congress to take broader legislative action.
It was in that context that Thomas issued a nearly 50-page dissent in the case that argued against allowing “the federal judiciary to decide the correct racial apportionment of Alabama’s congressional seats.”
Thomas went on to describe parts of the Voting Rights Act as “nothing more than a racial entitlement to roughly proportional control of elective offices …. wherever different racial groups consistently prefer different candidates.”
He also said Thursday’s decision will force “Alabama to intentionally redraw its longstanding congressional districts so that black voters can control a number of seats roughly proportional to the black share of the State’s population.”
In Alabama, Black voters make up a little less than 30% of the state population. But, according to the plaintiffs, they do not have a fair chance to elect candidates of their choice. This holds particularly true for the segment of the population living in the Black Belt.
“Given that population of Black voters, we argued in our case, should have the opportunity to elect the candidate of their choice in two of the seven congressional districts that Alabama has,” Brittany Carter, a political participation fellow at the NAACP Legal and Education Defense Fund and part of the legal team representing the Black voters in Merrill, told NewsOne in an interview last year. “Alabama has consistently only given Black voters a chance to elect a representative of choice in one out of seven districts.”
Thursday’s ruling could set a powerful legal precedent moving forward.
“If we continue to organize, develop organizers and harness our collective power, we can ensure that our states have people in office who are truly representative of our vision and values. We must greet each effort to undermine our democracy with determination, resolve and tenacity,” Prentiss Haney, co-director of the Ohio Organizing Collaborative, and Andrea Mercado, executive director of Florida Rising, wrote in an op-ed last week. “Although our opponents want to gradually wear us down, we should organize so many people that there is always a deep bench of activists and organizers ready to step up and carry the torch forward. Regardless of what we face, we can never lose faith in the power of ordinary people to impact extraordinary change.”
Meanwhile, defenders of democracy hailed the ruling as an undeniable victory.
“Today, the Supreme Court justices upheld the promise of the Voting Rights Act and the 15th Amendment. They also preserved the scientific standards that have been used for nearly 40 years to identify and remedy racial gerrymandering. This decision is a win for Black, brown, and Indigenous voters who have fought against gerrymandering that limits their ability to participate in free and fair elections,” Dr. Jennifer Jones, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said in a statement emailed to NewsOne. “The work of protecting democracy and voting rights isn’t over. We still need strong legislation to expand voter access and limit partisan gerrymandering. But today’s decision is an important bulwark against attacks on democracy. It preserves the Voting Rights Act and ensures that communities have the tools they need to challenge racially discriminatory district maps.”
Kareem Crayton, senior director at the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program, expressed cautious optimism about Thursday’s ruling.
“Make no mistake: today’s ruling still leaves us with a weakened tool of enforcement,” Crayton said and advised preemptive action in Washington: “Congress can and should step in to protect fair access to voting and representation for all. Our legislators must pass the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the Freedom to Vote Act.”
Attorney General Merrick B. Garland said Thursday’s ruling “rejects efforts to further erode fundamental voting rights protections” and echoed sentiments expressed by Crayton.
“Over the past two years, the Justice Department has rededicated its resources to enforcing federal voting rights protections. We will continue to use every authority we have left to defend voting rights,” Garland said in a statement. “But that is not enough. We urge Congress to act to provide the Department with important authorities it needs to protect the voting rights of every American.”
NAACP President & CEO, Derrick Johnson emphasized in a statement that “this fight is far from over,” noting that the “same malicious actors who are working to suppress Black votes in states like Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida are coming to a city near you.”
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