Washington (CNN)The Supreme Court on Wednesday sent disputed redistricting plans in Alabama — drawn by a Republican-led legislature after the 2010 census -- back down to a lower court to take a second look.
Supreme Court split on racially charged voting rights case
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Democrats had challenged the plans saying they impermissibly packed too many African-Americans into too few districts.
A lower court had rejected the racial gerrymander claims launched by Democrats and upheld the maps.
Justice Stephen Breyer, writing for a 5-4 majority, said the lower court had done an incorrect analysis in part by failing to carefully examine the role of race on a district-by-district basis. Breyer, joined by Justices Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan instructed the lower court to take another look.
"We find that the district court applied incorrect legal standards in evaluating the claims," Breyer wrote. He said that a new analysis might provide "strong, perhaps overwhelming, evidence that race did predominate" in some districts. Breyer also said the lower court erroneously analyzed the states' arguments under the Voting Rights Act.
"The decision makes it slightly more difficult for the dominant party to draw a self-interested map and claim that the Voting Rights Act required them to do that," said election law expert Daniel P. Tokaji of The Ohio State University.
The case stems from redistricting plans put in place by the Republican-led legislature following the 2010 census. A lawsuit filed by the Alabama Democratic Conference and the Alabama Black Caucus claimed the plans represented an unconstitutional racial gerrymander.
A line of Supreme Court precedent makes clear that districts drawn predominantly on the basis of race can only be justified by extraordinary circumstances.
In court Alabama's Solicitor General Andrew L. Brahser defended the plans and said they were legally drawn to preserve the status quo because the Republican Party "had won a majority for the first time in 130 years." He said the drafters of the plan were seeking to comply with a section of the Voting Rights Act by keeping the same proportion of black voters in each district as under previous plans.
But a lawyer for the Alabama Democrats said the state employed "rigid racial targets to design all its black majority districts based on mere racial statistics alone." He said racial quotas in the context of redistricting are a dangerous business.
"They can be a way of giving minorities faced with racially polarized voting a fair opportunity to elect, but they can also be a way of unnecessarily packing voters by race in ways that further polarize and isolate us by race," he said.
Justice Antonin Scalia, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito dissented from the opinion.
Thomas took the opportunity to condemn the court's voting rights jurisprudence.
"I do not pretend that Alabama is blameless when it comes to its sordid history of racial politics," he wrote.
But he said its redistricting effort was "tainted by our voting rights jurisprudence" and that special interest groups have hijacked the Voting Rights Act and used it "to achieve their vision of maximized black electoral strength, often at the expense of the voters they purport to help."
John Paul Schnapper-Casteras, a lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund praised the decision saying it provides "an opportunity for black voters to go back before a trial court to carefully examine how Alabama used race to limit black electoral strength."