WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court was divided on Wednesday over a challenge to Alabama’s legislative redistricting plan, which plaintiffs said was drawn with too much emphasis on voters’ race.
The challengers are black officeholders and Democrats, who argued that the state’s Republican leadership packed too many minority voters into too few districts. Although a proportional number of black officials were elected under the plan, it raised constitutional questions about the use of race in making such decisions, the challengers said.
The allegation made the oral arguments unusual.
“You realize, I assume,” Justice Antonin Scalia told Richard Pildes, an attorney for one of the groups, “you’re making the argument that the opponents of black plaintiffs used to make here.”
Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. — who in a previous reapportionment case decried the “sordid business” of dividing people by race — said states have little choice under a federal law requiring the creation of districts that give minorities a chance to elect candidates of their choice.
Pildes agreed that states could be in a “bind” when trying to build districts that have enough minority voters but without “unnecessarily packing voters by race in ways that further polarize and isolate us by race.”
Asked Roberts skeptically: “They have to hit this sweet spot between those two extremes without taking race predominantly into consideration?”
The situation is replicated across the South, especially, as Republicans gain control of state legislatures and, therefore, the reapportionment process.
They use the Voting Rights Act to create districts with high minority percentages — which, in turn, allow surrounding districts to become more white and lean Republican.
A federal panel in Virginia recently said some congressional districts there are improperly packed.
But Justice Samuel Alito Jr. told Pildes and Eric Schnapper, representing black officeholders and a Democratic group, that they aren’t really opposed to the use of “racial quotas” in creating the districts.
“You’re just interested in lower quotas,” Alito said.
The question could come down to whether Alabama had partisan gerrymandering goals in mind — the court has allowed that — rather than racial gerrymandering. And that is difficult to unravel when, as in Alabama, racial and political identities are closely linked.