U.S. Supreme Court Allows Mississippi’s Congressional Map To Remain in Place

WASHINGTON, D.C. — On Tuesday, Feb. 21, the U.S. Supreme Court weighed in on a lawsuit regarding the constitutionality of Mississippi’s congressional map drawn with 2020 census data. In particular, the Court dismissed an appeal of a decision by a federal three-judge panel to vacate (meaning void) a two-decades long permanent injunction that required Mississippi to create a constitutional congressional redistricting plan that was precleared under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA). In doing so, the Court effectively allowed Mississippi’s congressional map drawn with 2020 census data to remain in place and declined to rule on the constitutionality of the map. Notably, because this appeal originated from a three-judge panel’s decision involving constitutional claims against the state’s congressional map, the Supreme Court had no choice but to accept the appeal and rule on the merits as prescribed by federal law. In contrast, the vast majority of appeals to the Supreme Court come in the form of petitions for writs of certiorari for which the Court has discretion over whether to accept an appeal and ultimately decide on the merits.  

Today’s decision stems from a set of consolidated federal lawsuits filed back in 2001 — Smith v. Watson and Buck v. Reeves — that challenged Mississippi’s congressional map drawn with 2000 census data for being malapportioned in violation of the U.S. Constitution. In 2002 and 2011, following the release of 2000 and 2010 decennial census data respectively, a three-judge panel ordered Mississippi to implement a court-drawn congressional plan containing four congressional districts (one of which was a majority-Black district) for use in “all succeeding congressional primary and general elections for the State of Mississippi thereafter, until the State of Mississippi produces a constitutional congressional redistricting plan that is precleared in accordance with the procedures in Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.” Up until the release of 2020 census data, every congressional election in Mississippi was held under a court-drawn plan. 

Upon release of the 2020 census data, the court-imposed congressional map from 2011 was rendered malapportioned, and Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves (R) subsequently signed House Bill 384, a new four-district congressional plan. On the same day, the Mississippi Republican Party Executive Committee (MREC) — one of the defendants in the original 2001 lawsuit — filed a motion to vacate the court’s 2011 judgment that required Mississippi to draw a congressional redistricting plan that was precleared under Section 5 of the VRA. In the motion, MREC, joined by the Mississippi governor, secretary of state, attorney general and two other individual voters, claimed that the 2011 order no longer applied since the related court-ordered map became malapportioned following the release of 2020 census data and the state’s new congressional map, H.B. 384, had to go into effect. The Mississippi Democratic Party Executive Committee and the Buck plaintiffs opposed this motion, arguing that H.B. 384 is racially gerrymandered in violation of the U.S. Constitution and was not precleared under Section 5 of the VRA in line with the court’s previous injunction. In support of the latter position, they argued that the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder made the VRA’s preclearance coverage formula in Section 4 unconstitutional, but left Section 5 in place. Nonetheless, in May 2022, the three-judge panel vacated the 2011 injunction, holding that it no longer applied since the Shelby County decision meant that preclearance is no longer required, but did not address the racial gerrymandering claims. In June 2022, the Buck plaintiffs, who opposed the court’s vacatur of the 2011 injunction, filed a motion to alter or amend the panel’s May order and urged it to conclude that H.B. 384 is an unconstitutional racial gerrymander that violates the U.S. Constitution. This request was subsequently denied, thereby clearing the way for H.B. 384 to take effect. 

On Sept. 22, 2022, the Buck plaintiffs appealed the three-judge panel’s order granting the motion to vacate the 2011 permanent injunction and the subsequent order denying the motion to alter or amend said order to the U.S. Supreme Court. In their jurisdictional statement, the Buck plaintiffs argued that the lower court “created or perpetuated a constitutional violation when it vacated its 2011 injunction because the court allowed a racially gerrymandered plan – H.B. 384 – to go into effect.” They also contended that H.B. 384 “placed more black voters in CD2 than necessary to afford black voters an opportunity to elect a representative of their choice” and the map is therefore an unconstitutional racial gerrymander. The Buck plaintiffs added that the respondents did not have “a strong basis in evidence supporting their argument that H.B. 384 packed black voters in CD2 to comply with [Section] 2 of the Voting Rights Act.” They ultimately asked the Supreme Court to reverse the district court’s orders and to remand the case back down to the district court with instructions to “modify its 2011 injunction consistent with this Court’s ruling.” Today’s ruling denying this request means that Mississippi’s congressional map drawn with 2020 census data will remain in place and the state is no longer subject to any court orders ensuring that it enacts constitutional, precleared congressional maps. 

Read the order here.

Learn more about the case here.