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A panel of federal judges on Monday began a review of Alabama’s redrawn congressional map which opponents argued defies the court’s mandate to create a second district where Black voters have an opportunity to influence the outcome of an election.
The three-judge panel, which blocked the use of the state’s old map last year, will decide whether to let Alabama’s new districts go forward or step in and draw new congressional districts for the state.
Alabama was forced to draw new district lines after the U.S. Supreme Court, in a surprise June decision, upheld the panel’s earlier finding that the state’s then-map — which had one Black-majority district out of seven in a state where more than one in four residents is Black — likely violated the federal Voting Rights Act.
Lawyers for voters in the case argued Monday that the new plan, which maintains one majority-Black district, still discriminates against Black voters. They said it flouts the panel’s 2022 finding that Alabama should have two districts where Black voters comprise a majority or “something quite close to it.”
Abha Khanna, an attorney representing one group of plaintiffs in the case, said Alabama chose “defiance over compliance.”
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“Alabama has chosen instead to thumb its nose at this court and to thumb its nose at the nation’s highest court,” Khanna said.
Alabama Republicans, who have been reluctant to create a Democratic-leaning district, boosted the percentage of Black voters in the majority-white 2nd Congressional District, now represented by Republican Rep. Barry Moore, from about 30% to 39.9%.
Deuel Ross, a lawyer with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund who argued the case before the Supreme Court, said Alabama lawmakers knew they were supposed to create an opportunity district for Black voters but refused to do so.
A lawyer for the state accused plaintiffs of seeking a “racial gerrymander” over traditional guidelines for drawing districts, such as keeping districts compact and keeping communities of interest together.
“It’s unlawful to enforce proportionality over traditional redistricting principles,” Edmund LaCour, Alabama’s solicitor general, told the three-judge panel.
Federal judges have reviewed Alabama’s redrawn congressional map amid voting rights concerns.
Alabama has maintained the new plan complies with the Voting Rights Act. State leaders are engaging in a high-stakes wager that the panel will accept their proposal or that the state will prevail in a second round of appeals to the Supreme Court which could again test the requirements of the Voting Rights Act.
The judges did not indicate how quickly they will rule. The panel in 2022 issued a preliminary injunction blocking the state’s then-map. During the court hearing, a judge asked the sides about next steps and whether they were starting anew in the review of the map.
“Are we in the first inning?” Judge Stan Marcus asked.
The high-stakes hearing, which continues Monday afternoon, drew a large number of spectators to the federal courthouse in Birmingham where an overflow room was opened to accommodate the large crowd. Plaintiffs in the Supreme Court case attended with many wearing T-shirts printed with their proposed map which would have two majority-Black districts.
Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, chairman of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, said in a statement that Alabama’s new map “denies Black Alabamians their lawfully protected rights.”
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“Alabama’s latest congressional map is a continuation of the state’s sordid history of defying court orders intended to protect the rights of Black voters,” Holder said.