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Will GOP-appointed justices weaken the Voting Rights Act (again)?

Republican-appointed justices on the Supreme Court have already undermined the Voting Rights Act — twice. They now have a chance to do it again.


The most recently completed term of the U.S. Supreme Court was quite brutal, as Republican-appointed justices flexed their political muscles, overturned longstanding precedents, and created the most far-right high court since the Great Depression.

Those hoping for more moderation in the new term, which began yesterday, are likely to be disappointed. As Ruth Marcus explained in her latest column, “The cataclysmic Supreme Court term that included the unprecedented leak of a draft opinion and the end of constitutional protection for abortion would, in the normal ebb and flow, be followed by a period of quiet, to let internal wounds heal and public opinion settle. That doesn’t appear likely.... Nothing in the behavior of the court’s emboldened majority suggests any inclination to pull back on the throttle.”

Take today, for example, as the justices heard oral arguments in Merrill v. Milligan, a case about Alabama’s congressional district map that the court might use to further weaken the landmark Voting Rights Act. NBC News reported:

Alabama’s Republican attorney general, Steve Marshall, is asking the court, which has a 6-3 conservative majority, to unravel decades of precedent on how to remedy concerns that the power of Black voters is being diluted by dividing voters into districts where white voters dominate.

For those who aren’t familiar with this case, let’s take a step back and review how we arrived at this point.

Republican-appointed justices first took an ax to the Voting Rights Act in a 2013 case called Shelby v. Holder, in which the Supreme Court gutted Section 5 of the landmark civil rights law, dealing specifically with pre-clearance of new election laws. The result was predictable: GOP policymakers at the state level approved sweeping new voting restrictions, mostly targeting minority communities, intended to help tilt elections in Republicans’ favor.

Last year, Republican-appointed justices went further, weakening Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.

The newest challenge, as Rachel explained on last night’s show, deals with Alabama Republicans’ latest redistricting plan, which has just one predominantly Black district — out of seven U.S. House seats — despite the fact that a fourth of Alabama’s population is Black. This, naturally, led to litigation under the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits “voting practices or procedures that discriminate on the basis of race, color, or membership in one of the language minority groups.”

An appellate court — including two Trump-appointed jurists — sided with voting rights advocates and ordered the state to create a fairer and more representative map. It also emphasized Alabama’s “extensive history of repugnant racial and voting-related discrimination.”

Alabama Republicans appealed that ruling to the Supreme Court. NBC News’ report added:

Although members of the conservative majority did not appear sympathetic to Alabama’s broader arguments, some did indicate a willingness to make it harder for groups to overcome an early hurdle to bringing such claims. This would give states more leeway to argue that additional districts where minority voters could elect the candidates of their choice do not need to be drawn just because plaintiffs are able to show it’s possible to do so out of thousands of computer-generated options, some of which include race as a criteria. States could have a better chance of fending off lawsuits if they could show they adhered to race-neutral criteria in drawing their maps.

If you’ve heard that Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson was brilliant today in explaining to Alabama’s lawyer about the origins of the 14th Amendment, you heard correctly. Whether that’s enough to sway her colleagues remains to be seen.

A ruling is expected next summer. Watch this space.