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Supreme Court questions racial gerrymandering allegations in South Carolina congressional district

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The conservative majority of the Supreme Court displayed skepticism today regarding a lower court’s ruling that a congressional district in South Carolina was racially gerrymandered, potentially violating the Constitution. The case at hand explores the complexities of distinguishing racial and political motives in the drawing of voting boundaries.

During a two-hour argument session, the justices scrutinized the credibility of expert testimony presented before a three-judge district court panel in October 2022. The debate centered on whether, in a climate where the Supreme Court had previously allowed partisan gerrymandering, using race as a proxy for politics could be considered impermissible.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh posed a question highlighting the importance of political data in understanding voting behavior: “You think looking at 2020 and figuring out ‘were you a Trump voter or were you a Biden voter’ is not probative to whether you’re going to vote for Nancy Mace or not in the last election?”

Republicans in South Carolina, responsible for drawing new voting lines after the 2020 Census, argued that data from the 2020 presidential election justified the design of Congressional District 1, which the lower court had declared an unconstitutional racial gerrymander. They contended that political motivations were the primary driving force behind the redistricting, not race.

The Supreme Court is reviewing a decision by the South Carolina district court, which asserted that state Republican lawmakers intentionally used race to shape Congressional District 1.

Unlike a prominent dispute in Alabama, where the Supreme Court found a likely violation of the Voting Rights Act, the South Carolina case focuses on allegations that race was improperly used in the map-drawing process, in violation of the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause.

Chief Justice John Roberts questioned the strength of evidence presented by the map’s challengers and expressed concerns about the implications of upholding the district court’s decision. He noted that this case appeared to break new ground in voting rights jurisprudence, as it relied heavily on circumstantial evidence.

Roberts also inquired whether the Justice Department had previously supported a plaintiff in a similar case, indicating that this situation was uncommon.

The dispute revolves around Congressional District 1, situated along South Carolina’s southeastern coast, which historically elected Republicans but experienced a Democratic upset in 2018. Subsequently, redistricting efforts in 2021 aimed to make the district more Republican-leaning by shifting residents to another district.

The NAACP of South Carolina and voter Taiwan Scott contested the redrawing of Congressional District 1, alleging that it was racially gerrymandered. A district court panel agreed, concluding that race was the primary factor in its design.

The panel found that GOP lawmakers had a target of 17% Black voting-age population in Congressional District 1 and moved Black residents to achieve a Republican majority. The Supreme Court will decide whether to uphold this decision, with South Carolina Republicans arguing that the Legislature acted in good faith and used political data to pursue political objectives.

Civil rights groups urged the Supreme Court to affirm the district court’s decision, emphasizing that using race as the predominant factor in sorting voters violates the Constitution. The case’s core question is whether race or partisanship dominated the redistricting process.

Legal experts suggest that this case, while unlikely to make it harder for voters to challenge the use of race in districting, is crucial in shaping the court’s stance on the role of race in state legislatures’ decisions. The Supreme Court’s focus on race, in this context, may have far-reaching implications for future redistricting efforts.

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