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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

Leubsdorf: Ruling offers brighter outlook for candidates

By Carl P. Leubsdorf
Published: September 18, 2023, 6:01am

A decade after the Supreme Court sharply limited the sway of the Voting Rights Act, the landmark law is enjoying something of a renaissance.

When the court in 2013 ruled unconstitutional the law’s provisions requiring Justice Department pre-clearance of voting law changes, many states like Texas rushed to implement new laws that critics called discriminatory, realizing the federal courts would no longer block them.

But due in part to another, quite different high court ruling last year, judges in several states are invoking another section of the 1965 law to reject Southern Republican gerrymandering aimed at limiting the number of Black Democratic U.S. House members.

Decisions or pending court cases in at least five states — Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and South Carolina — challenge U.S. House district lines enacted by Republican legislatures as racially discriminatory. With Republicans holding only a five-seat House majority, rulings there could significantly impact the 2024 election results.

The current situation was triggered by the same chief justice, John Roberts, whose doubts about the Voting Rights Act — dating back to his days as a young Justice Department attorney — climaxed with his writing the 2013 ruling.

Last year, to the surprise of most court analysts, Roberts joined with a fellow conservative, Justice Brett Kavanaugh, and the three liberal justices to rule that the Alabama legislature violated the Voting Rights Act by refusing to draw a second House district in which Black residents, who comprise 27 percent of its population, had the opportunity to “elect a representative of their choice.” Alabama has seven House districts.

The court’s ruling remains mired in the courts, thanks to the Alabama legislature’s refusal to implement it. But it is likely to trigger a similar decision in a Louisiana case that argues a second of its six districts should have been drawn to make minority representation possible in the one-third Black state.

In Georgia, meanwhile, a federal court is hearing a case brought by Black voters and civil rights groups who argue the 30 percent Black state should have an additional Black-majority House district as well as more state Senate and state House districts.

In Florida, a state judge ruled recently that the GOP-controlled legislature violated the state Constitution by eliminating the north Florida district represented by Black Democrat Al Lawson. In 2010, voters passed what was known as the Fair Districts amendment, which barred drawing districts that would “diminish” the ability of minorities to “elect representatives of their choice.”

The case will likely wind up before the state’s Supreme Court, five of whose seven judges were picked by GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis, currently seeking the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.

In Texas, pending lawsuits note that, although most of the state’s population growth was among its communities of color, the Republican legislature added two predominantly white districts. Nearly half of the population growth was Hispanic, but the legislature did not create any new opportunities for electing more Hispanics.

Court decisions upholding all of the pending cases in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and South Carolina could result in the election of five more Black Democrats to the House. That would constitute something of a political grand slam but, in any case, Democratic one-seat gains in each of these Southern states might be offset by larger swings in North Carolina or New York.

Last year’s Supreme Court decision has had the practical effect of moderating the negative impact of the 2013 verdict, restoring the Voting Rights Act as an effective vehicle for Blacks and Democrats to challenge Republican efforts to limit their numbers.