Federal judges review Alabama’s new congressional map, lack of 2nd majority-Black district

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A line of people wait outside the federal courthouse in Birmingham, Ala., on Monday, Aug. 14, 2023. to watch the Aug. 14, 2023 hearing. A three-judge panel is reviewing Alabama’s new congressional districts. They will decide whether to let the map stand or step in and draw districts for the state. (AP Photo/Kim Chandler)

Federal judges reviewing Alabama’s new congressional map on Monday sharply questioned if state lawmakers ignored the court’s directive to create a second-majority Black district, so minority voters have a fair opportunity to influence elections.

The three-judge panel held a hearing as they weigh whether to let the map stand or to step in and draw new congressional districts for the state. The panel heard arguments Monday but did not indicate when it would rule.

Alabama was forced to draw new district lines after the U.S. Supreme Court, in a surprise June decision, upheld the panel’s earlier finding that the state’s then-map — which had just one Black-majority district out of seven in a state where more than one in four residents is Black — likely violated the federal Voting Rights Act.

Lawyers for voters in the case argued Monday that the new plan, which maintains one majority-Black district, still discriminates against Black voters. They said it flouts the panel’s 2022 finding that Alabama should have two districts where Black voters comprise a majority or “something quite close to it.”

All three judges pointedly asked the state’s lawyer whether Alabama had ignored their finding that the state should have a second district where Black voters have an opportunity to elect their preferred candidates.

Judge Judge Terry F. Moorer asked if Alabama had chosen to “deliberately disregard” the court’s instruction. Judge Stan Marcus asked the state, “Were you not required to draw a new map (that provides a reasonable) opportunity (district for Black voters)?”

Edmund LaCour, Alabama’s solicitor general, said the redrawn map was as “close as you get” to creating a second majority-Black district without violating the U.S. Constitution or traditional redistricting criteria.

“I think it is close as you get without violating the Constitution,” LaCour said.

LaCour accused the plaintiffs of seeking a “racial gerrymander” over traditional guidelines for drawing districts, such as keeping districts compact and keeping communities of interest together.

Abha Khanna, an attorney representing one group of plaintiffs in the case, said Alabama chose “defiance over compliance.”

“Alabama has chosen instead to thumb its nose at this court and to thumb its nose at the nation’s highest court and to thumb its nose at its own Black citizens,” Khanna said.

Khanna said Alabama essentially changed nothing for Black voters by passing a map that maintained a single majority-Black district. White voters will continue to

Alabama Republicans, who have been reluctant to create a Democratic-leaning district, boosted the percentage of Black voters in the majority-white 2nd Congressional District, now represented by Republican Rep. Barry Moore, from about 30% to 39.9%.

State leaders are engaging in a high-stakes wager that the panel will accept their proposal or that the state will prevail in a second round of appeals to the Supreme Court which could again test the requirements of the Voting Rights Act.

The panel in 2022 issued a preliminary injunction blocking the state’s then-map. During the court hearing, a judge asked the sides about next steps and whether they were starting anew in the review of the map.

The high-stakes hearing drew a large number of spectators to the federal courthouse in Birmingham, where an overflow room was opened to accommodate the large crowd. Plaintiffs in the Supreme Court case attended, with many wearing T-shirts printed with their proposed map, which would have two majority-Black districts.

Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, chairman of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, said in a statement that Alabama’s new map “denies Black Alabamians their lawfully protected rights.”

“Alabama’s latest congressional map is a continuation of the state’s sordid history of defying court orders intended to protect the rights of Black voters,” Holder said.

Republished with the permission of The Associated Press.