When Dianne Pinderhughes checked the news on Thursday, she was prepared for disappointment.
Pinderhughes, a professor of political science and Africana Studies at Notre Dame whose research explores the formation of American voting rights policy, said she expected a different ruling from a Supreme Court more conservative than it has been in nearly a century.
“I was very surprised that Roberts and Kavanaugh would be willing to do this,” Pinderhughes told The Daily Beast. “I did not think they would. You kind of hold your breath and hope it comes out, but you don‘t expect it.”
The Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that Alabama discriminated against Black voters with its recently redrawn congressional districts, upholding a lower court decision. It was, to Pinderhughes, a “pretty extraordinary” turn of events.
The unexpected 5-4 ruling saw Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Brett Kavanaugh side with the court’s liberals in finding that the Voting Rights Act was likely violated in a congressional map in which just one out seven seats was majority Black—despite the fact that African Americans account for over a quarter of the state’s population.
In the ruling, Roberts declined Alabama’s request for the court to change its interpretation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits voting practices that racially discriminate.
“We find Alabama’s new approach to §2 compelling neither in theory nor in practice,” Roberts wrote. “We accordingly decline to recast our §2 case law as Alabama requests.”
In earlier rulings, Roberts had sided with conservative majorities that had made it more difficult for racial minorities to invoke the 1965 legislation.
The decision means, in the immediate term, that “Black voters in Alabama will see their rights vindicated, and that Alabama cannot maintain a discriminatory congressional map that does not put Black voters on equal footing with their white counterparts,” Yurij Rudensky, senior counsel for the Democracy Program at the NYU School of Law’s Brennan Center for Justice, told The Daily Beast.
The Supreme Court decision may also have a direct impact in places such as Louisiana, as well as Georgia, where trial courts have made similar alterations to their congressional maps as Alabama’s, according to Rudensky, who said he expects new maps to be adopted in those two states “at the very least.”
Thursday’s decision “is contrary to the hostility that conservative justices including Chief Justice Roberts have shown for the Voting Rights Act in recent years,” said Prof. Barry Burden, director of the Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Yet, Burden continued, the decision is a limited one, focused solely on the facts in a single case.
“It confronts an egregious dilution of Black voter influence in Alabama and allows the Voting Rights Act to remedy the situation,” he told The Daily Beast. “Conservatives Roberts and Kavanaugh made clear that [they] do not wish expand the reach of the law and will likely side with their fellow conservatives on future voting rights cases.”
The other four conservative justices dissented to the ruling Thursday, with Justice Clarence Thomas arguing that the decision compels “Alabama to intentionally redraw its longstanding congressional districts so that black voters can control a number of seats roughly proportional to the black share of the State’s population.”
He added that Section 2 of the Act “demands no such thing, and, if it did, the Constitution would not permit it.” The decision in the case, Allen v. Milligan, means that Alabama will now have to redraw its congressional map to create a second majority-Black district.
Last year, a three-judge panel—which included two judges appointed by Donald Trump—unanimously agreed that Alabama’s seven-district congressional map likely violated the Voting Rights Act by weakening the vote of Black voters in Alabama, and ordered that a new map be drawn up.
The state appealed the decision to the Supreme Court and, despite the lower court’s finding that the map was likely illegal, it was allowed to be used in 2022’s congressional elections. The Supreme Court also allowed Louisiana’s congressional map to stand despite it, too, being ruled as likely discriminatory by a lower court.
In an email following Thursday’s decision, plaintiff and voting rights activist Khadidah Stone called it “a major win not just for Alabama voters, but for voting rights across the board.”
The court “reaffirm[ed] a major protection against discriminatory maps and sent a message to state lawmakers that they cannot dilute Black political power in drawing new maps,” Stone said.
In a broader sense, the Supreme Court has now recognized that the Voting Rights Act is carefully constructed to identify actual instances of racial discrimination and doesn’t apply where there isn’t an issue, according to Rudensky. Still, the Supreme Court has weakened the Voting Rights Act over the decades, steadily chipping away at important protections and making certain provisions less effective, he said.
“There is absolutely still a need for Congress to address the issues that continue to plague many states and many communities, and policies that target and deny voters of color equal and meaningful access to the political process,” Rudensky said.
For his part, Burden sees Thursday’s decision as an indication that “there are at least some isolated cases where a majority of justices will recognize evidence of racial discrimination, whether intentional or not.”
Pinderhughes was similarly measured in her optimism. While she was savoring Thursday’s win, she remained fully aware that it is but one step in a long journey.
“You have to fight every case, you have to work at every case,” she said. “Whether this court will respond this way in the future, we’ll have to see. These are challenging times. We can’t expect things always to go well. But we have to work at it, and fight for it. And if we do, we can win.”