The Supreme Court agreed on Monday to hear a case examining whether South Carolina’s congressional map discriminates against Black voters, the latest high-profile elections law challenge the Roberts court is wading in to.
The case — Alexander v. South Carolina State Conference of the NAACP — sees Republican lawmakers in the state challenging a lower court decision, which found that the state’s 1st Congressional District was an unlawful racial gerrymander.
The district, which is located in the southeastern part of the state and has historically included Charleston, recently was a rare competitive congressional district in South Carolina. Once solidly Republican, the district flipped to Democrats in an upset in 2018, before the GOP reclaimed it two years later when voters elected Republican Nancy Mace.
Then, during the mapmaking process following the 2020 census, the Republican-controlled state legislature redrew the district’s lines to make it more solidly Republican. A lower court ruled that Republicans in the state did so by moving a sizable number of Black voters from Charleston County over to the state’s 6th Congressional District, which is represented by Democratic Rep. James Clyburn, one of the most senior Black members of Congress.
That move created “a stark racial gerrymander of Charleston County,” a three-judge panel ruled earlier this year. “The Court finds that race was the predominant motivating factor in the General Assembly’s design of Congressional District No. 1,” the judges wrote. “State legislators are free to consider a broad array of factors in the design of a legislative district, including partisanship, but they may not use race as a predominant factor and may not use partisanship as a proxy for race.”
The panel of judges ruled that the state legislature must redraw the district.
Republicans in the state challenged that decision at the Supreme Court. They argued that the panel “failed to apply the presumption of good faith” to the legislature when it was drawing the map, and that the lower court did not consider the district as a whole and erred when it “failed to disentangle race from politics” in the mapmaking process.
“The panel presumed bad faith and ignored the record as a whole when it disregarded the uncontroverted direct evidence of the General Assembly’s intent, excused Plaintiffs’ failure to adduce an adequate alternative plan, ran roughshod over the obvious political explanation for District 1 and the challenged line, ignored the Enacted Plan’s compliance with traditional principles, and even invented a racial target out of whole cloth,” attorneys for South Carolina Republicans argued in their appeal to the Supreme Court.
Underneath the challenge is the role that Clyburn played in the background during the redistricting process. A recent report from ProPublica noted that Clyburn’s staff was in close contact with Republicans in the state as the maplines were redrawn, including suggesting district lines. Ultimately Clyburn’s district became even more solidly Democratic than it was before, even as it lost its majority Black status during the redistricting process.
“Any accusation that Congressman Clyburn in any way enabled or facilitated Republican gerrymandering that wouldn’t have otherwise occurred is fanciful,” Clyburn’s office said in a statement to ProPublic recently, saying he agreed with the three-judge panel’s ruling.
The case is just the latest in a string of redistricting lawsuits that have come before the nation’s highest court recently. Earlier this term, the justices heard Moore v. Harper, which involves a controversial theory that could restrict the authority of state courts to supervise state election laws, and Allen v. Milligan, a racial-gerrymandering challenge to Alabama’s congressional map. The court has not yet decided either case.
The South Carolina redistricting case likely will be argued this fall.