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Supreme Court: Alabama may use GOP-backed map of the state's congressional districts


The Voting Rights Act took a hit on Monday after the Supreme Court stopped a lower court that said Alabama's new congressional map doesn't give power to Black voters. The lower court had said to comply with the Voting Rights Act, Alabama had to create two majority Black districts. The state is more than one-quarter Black. Now, Alabama will use a GOP-backed map of the state's congressional districts. Earlier this morning, we called up SCOTUSblog co-founder Amy Howe.

AMY HOWE: It's another ruling that shows the effect of the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 2020 and her replacement with the much more conservative Justice Amy Coney Barrett. This was a ruling in which Chief Justice John Roberts, who we don't think of as a liberal, joined the court's three liberal justices. But that only gets you four votes, and you need five to form a majority. So that means that the state's map is going to stay in place for the 2022 elections, even though a three-judge panel, that notably includes two judges appointed by President Donald Trump, said that it violated the Voting Rights Act, which shows you how conservative the Supreme Court has become.

MARTÍNEZ: So what did the justices say?

HOWE: So the justices, as a court, didn't say that much. We didn't hear from the majority to explain this decision to put the order on hold. This came to the court on the so-called shadow docket. Alabama was asking the justices to put the lower court's decision on hold on an emergency basis. But we heard from three different sets of justices. The main dissent was Justice Elena Kagan, joined by Justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor. And she said the lower court got it exactly right. What the state is asking us to do is to rewrite decades of precedent. And by putting the lower court's ruling on hold, we're allowing elections to go ahead with the state's map even though the lower court found that it violated the Voting Rights Act.

The chief justice wrote a separate dissent. He did not join Justice Kagan's dissent. He, too, would have kept the lower court's order on hold and required the state to draw a new map for the 2022 elections. He said the district court may have gotten a lot right as it currently stands. But, he said, the law governing these kinds of cases is confusing. It does need clarification. And so he agreed with the decision to go ahead and hear oral arguments.

And then the third opinion came from Justice Brett Kavanaugh, joined by Justice Samuel Alito. It was, in essence, a response to Justice Kagan. He said, we're not allowing the state to rewrite decades of precedent. We're not rewriting decades of precedent. We're just - we're not weighing in on the merits of the case at all. We're just setting the case for oral argument. And then I'm going to get a little wonky here, because he talked about something called the Purcell principle, which, I think, is something we're going to hear a lot about in 2022 and 2024. It's the idea that federal courts shouldn't intervene in state elections in the run-up to the election. He said the primary's coming up, and it's basically too late to make changes now.

MARTÍNEZ: Amy, quickly, when is the court expected to take this up?

HOWE: So the court didn't fast track this case. It's done that with a couple of cases - the vaccine case, the Texas abortion case. So we're all operating under the presumption that they're not going to hear this case until the fall. And in that case, we would get a decision, in all likelihood, sometime after the 2022 elections, probably in early 2023, in which case the people who would be elected to Congress under the current map would already be in Congress.

MARTÍNEZ: That's SCOTUSblog co-founder Amy Howe. Amy, thanks.

HOWE: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.