Supreme Court Rules Alabama Discriminated Against Black Voters


The Supreme Court ruled yesterday that Alabama’s new congressional map undermines Black voters in violation of federal law under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.

Chief Justice John Roberts delivered the opinion for the Court, which ruled 5-4 to affirm the lower federal court’s decision requiring the creation of a second congressional district “in which Black voters either comprise a voting-age majority or something quite close to it.”

The decision in Allen v. Milligan recounts Alabama’s history of racial injustice in reaffirming the Voting Rights Act.

“For the first 115 years following Reconstruction,” the Court wrote, “the State of Alabama elected no black Representatives to Congress.”

That changed only after a lawsuit was brought under the Voting Rights Act. In 1992, plaintiffs argued that Alabama had been diluting the votes of Black Alabamians in violation of Section 2. That litigation produced a majority-Black district in Alabama for the first time in decades—and that fall, Earl Hillard became the first black Representative from Alabama since 1877.

Alabama’s congressional map has “remained remarkably similar” since that litigation.

After the 2020 census, the Alabama Legislature created a new districting map that, like its predecessor, produced only one district out of the state’s seven districts in which Black voters comprised a majority of the voting age population.

Alabama resident and former EJI staff member Evan Milligan and other plaintiffs sued, arguing that there should be a second majority-Black district in a state where 27% of the population is Black.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court heard live testimony from 17 witnesses, reviewed more than 1,000 pages of briefing and upwards of 350 exhibits, and considered arguments from 43 different lawyers. It unanimously concluded that the new map likely violated federal law, writing that the question was not “a close one.”

The District Court preliminarily enjoined Alabama from using the map, but the Supreme Court granted Alabama’s request for a stay of the injunction and allowed the state to use the new map in the 2022 election.

Yesterday’s decision hews closely to established precedent on Section 2—a relief for activists and advocates in the wake of the Court’s 2013 decision in another Alabama case that gutted Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

“The essence of a §2 claim,” the Court explained, quoting its prior caselaw, “is that a certain electoral law, practice, or structure interacts with social and historical conditions to cause an inequality in the opportunities enjoyed by black and white voters.” That occurs where an “electoral structure operates to minimize or cancel out” minority voters’ “ability to elect their preferred candidates.”

The District Court faithfully applied the Court’s precedent, the chief justice wrote for the Court. The lower court correctly found that Black voters could constitute a majority in a second district that was “reasonably configured.”

The District Court also determined that there was “no serious dispute that Black voters are politically cohesive, nor that the challenged districts’ white majority votes sufficiently as a bloc to usually defeat Black voters’ preferred candidate.” Plaintiffs’ experts, the Court observed, described the evidence of racially polarized voting in Alabama as “intens[e],” “very strong,” and “very clear.”

Finally, the Court affirmed the District Court’s conclusion that the totality of circumstances showed a violation of Section 2:

The Court observed that elections in Alabama were racially polarized; that “Black Alabamians enjoy virtually zero success in statewide elections”; that political campaigns in Alabama had been “characterized by overt or subtle racial appeals”; and that “Alabama’s extensive history of repugnant racial and voting-related discrimination is undeniable and well documented.”

Importantly, the Court rejected “Alabama’s attempt to remake our §2 jurisprudence anew,” finding that the state’s novel theory was “compelling neither in theory nor in practice.”

“Today’s decision rejects efforts to further erode fundamental voting rights protections,” Attorney General Merrick B. Garland said in a statement. “[The decision] preserves the principle that in the United States, all eligible voters must be able to exercise their constitutional right to vote free from discrimination based on their race.”