Developments in Voting Rights Jurisprudence: Alabama Legislative Black Caucus v. Alabama By Jason “Jay” Malone

Developments in Voting Rights Jurisprudence: Alabama Legislative Black Caucus v. Alabama

By Jason “Jay” Malone

An interesting case is set to be argued before the United States Supreme Court in October 2014. The case, Alabama Legislative Black Caucus v. Alabama, concerns the practice of “packing” so called minority-majority voting districts with more minority voters.[1] The Supreme Court will decide whether the practice of “packing” violates any portions of the United States Constitution or the Voting Rights Act of 1965.[2]

            The original lawsuit was filed in the Middle District of Alabama by a coalition of black Alabama lawmakers, the Alabama Democratic Conference, and other plaintiffs.[3] The defendants named in the lawsuit include Robert Bentley, Governor of Alabama, and Jim Bennett, Secretary of State of Alabama.[4] The lawsuit alleged that Alabama Republican lawmakers, upon establishing a super majority in both the Alabama Senate and House of Representatives, redrew voting districts in a manner that violates § 2 of the Voting Rights Act and  the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution.[5] Specifically, the plaintiffs alleged that the districts redrawn in accordance with the 2010 Census were created in order to dilute the influence of minority voters throughout the state.[6]

            The plaintiffs presented testimony of several Alabama Democratic lawmakers as evidence against the defendants.[7] The Democratic lawmakers testified that the reapportionment had a negative effect on the voting strengths of minorities in their districts and across the state.[8] To counter, Representative Jim Bennett and Senator Gerald Dial, Chairpersons of the Permanent Legislative Committee on Reapportionment of the State of Alabama, testified about the guidelines that the committee used in reapportionment in accordance with the 2010 Census.[9] Senator Dial testified regarding six guidelines the committee followed:

First, the Committee wanted to comply with the requirement of one person, one vote by making the districts as equally populated as possible. Second, the Committee wanted to avoid future litigation about compliance with the requirement of one person, one vote. Third, the Committee wanted to comply with the Voting Rights Act. Fourth, the Committee wanted to comply with section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which it understood to require that it not reduce the number of majority-black districts or the approximate levels of black population within those districts. Fifth, the Committee wanted to draw districts to avoid incumbent conflicts. Sixth, the Committee wanted to preserve communities of interest when possible.[10]

The committee’s guidelines were structured in light of several Supreme Court rulings in regards to reapportionment. The Supreme Court’s long standing “one person, one vote” principle controlled the committee’s guidelines.[11]As the name of the principle suggests, the court stated that reapportionment should be conducted in a manner that one person’s vote in a state or congressional election is counted equally as that of another person’s vote in a different part of the state.[12] Another case that influenced the committee found that a population deviation of ten percent in a given voting district could violate the principle of “one person, one vote.”[13]

            Ultimately, a divided three-judge panel dismissed the claims of the plaintiffs.[14] In addressing the vote dilution claim made by the plaintiffs, the court used principles set forth by the Supreme Court in Thornburg v. Gingles.[15] In order to establish a prima facie case, a plaintiff must: “the minority group must be able to demonstrate that it is sufficiently large and geographically compact to constitute a majority in a single-member district, the minority group must be able to show that it is politically cohesive, and the minority must be able to demonstrate that the white majority votes sufficiently as a bloc to enable it usually to defeat the minority’s preferred candidate.”[16] “After the plaintiff has established the three Gingles elements, the plaintiff must also establish that the totality of the circumstances supports a finding that the voting scheme is dilutive.”[17]

            The trial court found that the plaintiffs did not meet the first Gingles element because “they failed to prove that an additional majority-black district could be created anywhere in the State.”[18] The court also found that the plaintiff’s dilution claim failed as well because the record established otherwise.[19] The court found that the plaintiff’s failure to show that the legislature could have drawn the map with a smaller population deviation was critical to their claim.[20] The court also found legislature’s ability to keep the amount of “minority-majority” Senate and House districts the same persuasive.[21] Furthermore, the court found that even if the plaintiffs had satisfied all three of the Gingles elements, the totality of the circumstances would still support a finding that voting dilution did not occur.

            In trying to convince the court to hear the case, the appellants argued that “packing of the majority black districts necessarily increases the political segregation of African-Americans and reduces their ability to influence the outcome of legislative elections in the rest of the state.”[22] The appellants also believe that the new voting districts were drawn “based on race to an unconstitutional and unjustified degree.”[23] The appellees believe they drew the districts in accordance with all of the relevant legal precedents.[24] It will be interesting to see the Court’s ruling on this issue as the Court continues to work in the area of voting rights with notable cases such as the one at hand and Shelby County v. Holder

[1] Ala. Legislative Black Caucus v. Alabama, 989 F. Supp. 2d 1227, 1236 (M.D. Ala 2013).

[2] Lyle Denniston, New Ruling Due on Racial Gerrymandering, SCOTUSblog (Jun. 2, 2014, 3:22 PM), http://www.scotusblog.com/2014/06/new-ruling-due-on-racial-gerrymandering.

[3] Ala. Legislative Black Caucus v. Alabama, 989 F. Supp. 2d at 1236. 

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Id. at 1259.

[8] Id. at 1259 – 1265.

[9] Id. at 1276.

[10] Id. at 1273.

[11] Id.

[12] Reynolds v. Sims, 377 U.S. 533, 560 (1964).

[13] Larios v. Cox, 300 F. Supp. 2d 1320, 1340 -1341 (N.D. Ga. 2004), aff’d, 542 U.S. 947 (2004).

[14] Ala. Legislative Black Caucus, 989 F. Supp. 2d at 1237. 

[15] Id. at 1279.

[16] Thornburg v. Gingles, 478 U.S. 30, 50-51 (1986).

[17] Ala. Legislative Black Caucus, 989 F. Supp. 2d at 1280.

[18] Id. at 1281.

[19] Id. at 1284.

[20] Id.

[21] Id. at 1285.

[22] Adam Liptak, Justices Enter Into Dispute Over Districts Alabama Set, The New York Times, June 2, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/03/us/politics/supreme-court-to-hear-challenge-to-alabama-redistricting.html?_r=0.

[23] Id.

[24] Id.

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