A trio of U.S. judges in the southern state of Alabama ruled Tuesday that the state legislature had discriminated against black citizens for the second time when it redefined the boundaries of congressional districts for the 2024 election.
The panel found that lawmakers refused to implement an enactment that gave black voters a reasonable chance to determine the winner of a second seat in the seven-member delegation to the Alabama House of Representatives.
The three-judge panel said it will now appoint a special judge to redefine Congressional district boundaries, although the state can appeal its decision to the US Supreme Court.
The months-long dispute comes in a state that had a long history of discrimination and physical assaults against Black Americans in the early 20th century, spanning the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
The Alabama Legislature first passed a congressional map in 2021 with a single majority-Black district, even though they make up 27% of the state’s population. Civil rights activists in the state filed a lawsuit to block use of the card in next year’s election, and the three-judge panel ruled in their favor.
Federal prosecutors said at the time that the state legislature’s map likely violated America’s voting rights law and that the state should have two counties where black voters have the opportunity to choose their preferred candidates. The state now has a black representative in Congress, Democrat Terri Sewell.
The judiciary panel said the state must pass a plan that would see black residents in two congressional districts make up a majority or “something pretty close.”
The state government sued to block the judiciary’s decision, but lost; In June, the US Supreme Court unexpectedly upheld a decision that the state’s map was unacceptable, a decision that could also jeopardize congressional maps in other southern states.
The Supreme Court ruling could give Democrats a better chance of regaining control of the House as most black voters support Democratic candidates.
After the Supreme Court ruled against it, the Alabama legislature revised its first map, still refusing to create a second majority-Black district, but changing the racial composition of a district from about 30% Black to 40%. Lawmakers rejected plans that would have brought the proportion of black voters even closer to the majority.
In Tuesday’s decision, the court panel said the lawmakers’ new plan was grossly flawed.
“We are not aware of any other instance in which a state legislature, faced with a federal court order declaring that its electoral plan unlawfully diluted minority votes and requiring a plan that provides a voting district with additional capabilities, has responded with a plan which the state recognizes does not make this district available,” the judges wrote.
“The statute requires the creation of an additional district that will provide black people in Alabama, like everyone else, with a fair and reasonable opportunity to vote for candidates of their choice.” The 2023 Plan clearly fails to achieve this,” the statement said.
In a hearing before their verdict, the three judges had specifically questioned the attorney general about the legislature’s refusal to create a black-majority second district or anything similar.
“I hear you say that the state of Alabama made a conscious choice to ignore our instructions to create either two black-majority constituencies or one where minority candidates could be elected,” Justice Terry Moorer said.
The state claimed its card complied with the Voting Rights Act and Supreme Court decision in this case. A further shift in congressional lines, the state argued, would violate traditional redistributive principles, such as holding communities of interest together.
Abha Khanna, an attorney representing a group of plaintiffs in the case, argued during the hearing that Alabama prefers a “challenge to compliance.”
“Alabama has chosen to make fun of this court, the highest court in the country, and its own black citizens,” Khanna said.