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Supreme Court blocks creation of 2nd majority-Black congressional district in Alabama

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A series of court cases and laws have steadily chipped away at voting rights in the U.S. in recent years, and today the Supreme Court continued that trend. In a 5-4 vote, the justices moved to further erode the 1965 Voting Rights Act. For now, they have blocked the formation of a second majority-Black congressional district in Alabama ahead of the 2022 elections.

Michael Li is senior counsel for the Brennan Center's Democracy Program, where his work focuses on redistricting, voting rights and elections. Thanks for joining us.

MICHAEL LI: Yeah, glad to be here.

SHAPIRO: To start with some context, Alabama has seven congressional districts. One is majority-Black, and the state's population is more than a quarter Black. So a three-judge federal court that included two Trump appointees had ruled that the state must create a second majority-Black district. Now, what does this 5-4 Supreme Court ruling today do?

LI: Well, what the Supreme Court did today is they put the redrawing of the map on hold. Alabama had a deadline of today to redraw map, and the court said - the lower court said that if it didn't, a special master would draw the map instead.

But today, the Supreme Court put that ruling on hold, saying that it was too close to the 2022 election and also agreed to take the case, which potentially will revisit what the Voting Rights Act means and could be further - could signal a further rolling back of critical portions of the Voting Rights Act that would apply not only in Alabama but in Texas and a whole range of states.

SHAPIRO: So this very conservative Supreme Court has effectively opened the door to consider the Voting Rights Act broadly. In the short term, what are the implications of this ruling in Alabama?

LI: Well, in Alabama, it means that the state will go ahead and use the map that the legislature drew for the 2022 elections. And then the Supreme Court will hear this case likely next term and rule sometime by June of 2023 in a really highly charged term where race is going to be out there in a lot of different ways, including affirmative action. So - but right now Alabama will continue using its existing maps.

SHAPIRO: This was a short, brief decision. The vote was 5-4, with Chief Justice John Roberts joining the court's three liberal justices. First, tell us what the conservatives in the majority said. What was their reasoning?

LI: Well, they gave a - well, not all of them wrote. But, you know, Justice Kavanaugh said he wasn't expressing opinion on the case as a whole. But he just thought it was too close to the election, noting that the Alabama - voting in Alabama starts in just seven weeks and didn't think there was enough time to redraw the map.

SHAPIRO: So it's about stability and predictability just before an election, in his view.

LI: That's right. But, you know, we don't know what the other justices wanted to do. And they did agree to take this case, which is really, as Justice Kagan said, really, you know, like, potentially undoing decades of well-established Voting Rights Act law, right? I mean, this is not...

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

LI: ...A hard case. This is not one where you would think that they would necessarily want to intervene. And yet they did. And they took this case, which I think is a powerful signal that they perhaps want to revisit what the Voting Rights Act means in the context of redistricting and perhaps even whether it applies to redistricting.

SHAPIRO: And in our last minute, what was the reasoning of the dissent? What did they say?

LI: Well, they really took to task the court using its shadow docket to really do a lot of damage, noting - Justice Kagan noted that this really came at the expense of Black Alabamans and - you know, who - and it really did damage to a law that, until recently, was really thought of as being, like, a bedrock of American democracy.

SHAPIRO: That's Michael Li, senior counsel for the Brennan Center's Democracy Program. Thank you for speaking with us this evening.

LI: Yeah, glad to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Miguel Macias is a Senior Producer at All Things Considered, where he is proud to work with a top-notch team to shape the content of the daily show.