The US Supreme Court's conservative justices have appeared sympathetic toward Alabama in the state's defence of a Republican-drawn electoral map faulted by judges for diluting the clout of Black voters in a major case that could further undermine a landmark federal voting rights law.
In spirited oral arguments lasting nearly two hours on Tuesday, Alabama Solicitor General Edmund LaCour faced tough questioning from the court's three liberal justices — Ketanji Brown Jackson, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor.
Some of the conservative justices, however, appeared open to certain of LaCour's defences of the map devised by the state's legislature delineating the boundaries of Alabama's seven US House of Representatives districts.
An eventual ruling siding with Alabama could make it harder to prove that state voting laws harm minorities. The court has a 6-3 conservative majority.
A three-judge federal court panel invalidated the map after it was challenged as unlawful by Black voters.
But the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision in February, let Alabama use the map for the November 8 US congressional elections in which Republicans are trying to regain control of Congress.
Rolling back protections
The dispute gives the court's conservatives a chance to further roll back protections contained in the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which prohibits racial discrimination in voting.
Conservative Justice Samuel Alito expressed support for raising the burden on plaintiffs to show that an electoral map is biased, suggesting that given current legal standards in "every place in the South ... will not the plaintiffs always run the table?"
Alito added, "It may be that Black voters and white voters prefer different candidates now because they have different ideas about what the government should do."
The lower court found that Alabama's map diminished the influence of Black voters by concentrating their voting power into a single House district even though the state's population is 27 percent Black while distributing the rest of the Black population in other districts at levels too small to form a majority.
Jackson, the first Black woman to serve on the court, rejected LaCour's argument that states should not consider race in crafting electoral district lines to comply with the Voting Rights Act.
The law, Jackson said, "is saying you need to identify people in this community who have less opportunity and less ability to participate — and ensure that that's remedied. It's a race-conscious effort."
"What strikes me about this case is that under our precedent it's kind of a slam dunk" against Alabama's map, Kagan said.
LaCour told the justices that Alabama's legislature drew the map "in a lawful race-neutral manner."
"The state largely retained its existing districts and made changes needed to equalize population. But that wasn't good enough for the plaintiffs. They argued that Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act requires Alabama to replace its map with a racially gerrymandered plan maximizing the number of majority-minority districts," LaCour said.
The Voting Rights Act was enacted at a time when Southern states including Alabama enforced policies blocking Black people from casting ballots. The case centres on a Voting Rights Act provision, called Section 2, aimed at countering voting laws that result in racial bias even absent racist intent.