American civil rights campaigner Martin Luther King (1929 – 1968) and his wife Coretta Scott King lead a black voting rights march from Selma, Alabama, to the state capital in Montgomery. | William Lovelace/Express/Getty Images
Attorney General Dana Nessel said on Friday that she has joined a coalition of 21 Democratic attorneys general urging the U.S. Supreme Court “not to undo four decades of legal precedent that protects the voting power of minority communities.”
In a brief filed in Merrill v. Milligan, the attorneys general argue that the nation’s high court should affirm a lower court’s ruling that Alabama’s congressional district maps violate the federal Voting Rights Act and must be redrawn.
The coalition urges the high court to maintain the established, straightforward standard used to determine whether a plaintiff has a viable claim of unlawful vote dilution. The brief, led by Attorney General Karl Racine of the District of Columbia and Attorney General Letitia James of New York, further argues that the court should reject Alabama’s proposed new standard for judging whether such a claim can proceed because it is unnecessary, untested, and unmanageable.
“Voting is the bedrock of our democracy,” Nessel, a Democrat, said in a written statement. “No state should be allowed to use untried methodologies to redraw voting districts. After Alabama’s attempt to ban curbside voting, it is clear that Supreme Court intervention is necessary to prevent the suppression of minority votes in the state. I am proud to join my colleagues in urging the Court to oppose Alabama’s attempt to undermine the Voting Rights Act.”
The Voting Rights Act was passed after several hundred civil rights protesters attempted to march from Selma, Alabama to the state capital of Montgomery on March 7, 1965. One of the marchers was John Lewis, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee chair and future member of the U.S. House of Representatives. On what became known as “Bloody Sunday,” the protesters were stopped by police using tear gas, night sticks and whips.
During an impassioned speech to a joint session of Congress on March 15, 1965, U.S. President Lyndon Johnson then outlined the ways in which election officials had denied Black citizens the right to vote.
“At times history and fate meet at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man’s unending search for freedom,” Johnson said. “So it was at Lexington and Concord. So it was a century ago at Appomattox. So it was last week in Selma, Ala.”
Under the Voting Rights Act, states may not draw legislative districts that dilute minority voting power and prevent communities of color from having a chance to elect their preferred candidates. The Supreme Court established standards for assessing the fairness of districts in the 1986 case Thornburg v. Gingles, and states have relied on that framework ever since.
Nearly 30% of Alabama’s population is Black; however, under districts drawn by the state after the 2020 census, only one of the state’s seven congressional district’s is majority-Black. Civil rights groups and Black Alabama voters filed suit against the state seeking to have the maps redrawn. In these suits, they argue that Alabama violated the Voting Rights Act by unlawfully drawing maps that “pack” Black voters into one majority-Black district.
A three-judge panel unanimously ruled that Alabama’s maps violated the Voting Rights Act and ordered the state to redraw them. Alabama appealed to the Supreme Court and is urging the Court to change the long-established framework used to determine whether districts are drawn fairly or whether they harm minority communities and violate the Voting Rights Act.
Under settled law, a plaintiff begins by showing that a minority group is sufficiently large and geographically compact to constitute a majority in a reasonably configured district. Alabama seeks to jettison this settled test and to require plaintiffs to prove at the outset that the state’s map deviates too far from supposedly “neutral” maps produced through computer algorithms.
Racine and James led the amicus brief. They were joined by Nessel and colleagues from California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington, and Wisconsin.
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