US Supreme Court Upholds South Carolina Congressional Map, Dismantles Racial Gerrymandering Precedent

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Today, in a 6-3 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that South Carolina’s congressional map is not a racial gerrymander, reversing a lower court decision that struck down the map. South Carolina will not have a fair map for 2024 and this decision will hamper the ability of voters to fight unfair maps in the future. 

The majority opinion authored by Justice Samuel Alito — who has recently made headlines for flying insurrectionist flags in the aftermath of Jan. 6 —  and joined by the court’s conservative majority holds that the state’s 2022 congressional map is not unconstitutionally racially gerrymandered and changes the standards required to bring racial gerrymandering claims. 

Photograph of the U.S. Supreme Court (Adobe Stock)
Photograph of the U.S. Supreme Court (Adobe Stock)

Leah Aden, Senior Counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund,  who argued the case, called the decision “disgraceful.” At a press conference today, Aden stated that the decision “repackages[] a volume of facts that underpin it to characterize the bleaching of more than 30,000 black voters out of Charleston County and CD one as merely partisan, a partisan fight which the legislators have publicly disclaimed during the map drawing process, the majority ignores and rewrites the facts.” 

This decision stems from a lawsuit filed by the South Carolina State Conference of the NAACP and a voter that alleged that the state’s congressional map drawn with 2020 census data is an unconstitutional racial gerrymander that intentionally discriminates against Black voters.  

The district court struck down the map for being an unconstitutional racial gerrymander. 

In January 2023, a federal three-judge panel struck down the current configuration of the state’s 1st Congressional District, which is currently represented by Rep. Nancy Mace (R), finding that it was an unconstitutional racial gerrymander in violation of the 14th Amendment.

In its January 2023 opinion, the three-judge panel found that creating South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District would have been “effectively impossible without the gerrymandering of the African American population of Charleston County” and that the “movement of over 30,000 African Americans in a single county from Congressional District No. 1 to Congressional District No. 6 created a stark racial gerrymander of Charleston County.”

Republican legislators appealed the panel’s January decision to the Supreme Court and asked it to reverse the decision. 

The U.S. Supreme Court took up the case in full. 

Since the plaintiffs challenged the constitutionality of the South Carolina congressional map under the 14th and 15th Amendments, federal law requires a three-judge panel to hear the claims instead of a single district court judge. Any decision from a three-judge panel is then directly appealable to the Supreme Court, which must accept the appeal and rule on the merits of the case. 

On ​​May 15, the U.S. Supreme Court announced that it would accept briefing and hear oral argument in the case. On Wednesday, Oct. 11 the Supreme Court heard the case. Today, seven months later, the Supreme Court issued its decision. 

Despite previous racial gerrymandering precedent not requiring parties to present an alternative map, the opinion comes to the conclusion that because the plaintiffs did not provide an alternative map, the plaintiffs could not  “defeat the starting presumption that the legislature acted in good faith.”

This delay caused the same federal court that struck down the map to issue an order requiring that the map be used for elections this year. 

Although parties asked the high court for a decision by January, the Court did not issue its opinion until now.  Between the U.S. Supreme Court hearing the case and today, Republican officials asked the lower court to pause its decision that blocked the map. In late March, the lower court issued an order stating that the state must use its gerrymandered map for 2024 given the upcoming primary and inaction by the U.S. Supreme Court. “[T]he ideal must bend to the practical,” the panel that originally struck down the map wrote in its order. 

Today’s decision, which will result in worse representation for South Carolina’s Black voters, stands in stark contrast with a district court decision out of Louisiana in which the state’s white voters were able to get a Section 2 compliant map struck down with extreme expediency. 

Taiwan Scott, one of the plaintiffs challenging South Carolina’s map said today he is, “very disturbed about the outcome…It’s as though we don’t matter.” 

 “The Supreme Court has failed. The American people’s voting rights have taken another gut punch, and the future of democracy in South Carolina is dangling by a thread,” The president of the South Carolina NAACP, Brenda C. Murphy, said of today’s opinion.

Both Murphy and Scott ended on a note of hope both saying they will continue to fight for their community and for South Carolinians. 

Justices and activists alike are denouncing today’s decision. 

In a scathing dissent, Justice Elena Kagan, writes:  “What a message to send to state legislators and mapmakers about racial gerrymandering. For reasons I’ve addressed, those actors will often have an incentive to use race as a proxy to achieve partisan ends…And occasionally they might want to straight-up suppress the electoral influence of minority voters…Go right ahead, this Court says to States today.” 

The dissent continues,  ”Go ahead, though you have no recognized justification for using race, such as to comply with statutes ensuring equal voting rights. Go ahead, though you are (at best) using race as a short-cut to bring about partisan gains—to elect more Republicans in one case, more Democrats in another.” 

With today’s decision making it even more difficult for voters of color to fight discriminatory maps, Kagan ends on a solemn note: “And so this “odious” practice of sorting citizens, built on racial generalizations and exploiting racial divisions, will continue…In the electoral sphere especially, where “ugly patterns of pervasive racial discrimination” have so long governed, we should demand better— of ourselves, of our political representatives, and most of all of this Court.” 

In reaction to today’s decision, President of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund Janai Nelson wrote on X, “This means that a racial gerrymander designed with a discriminatory purpose under the 14th and 15th Amends and that denies full and fair political power to Black South Carolinians, [including] the disenfranchised Gullah-Geechee community, will remain in place…By allowing unchecked partisan gerrymandering 5 years ago in Rucho v. Common Cause, SCOTUS has given itself a pass to grapple with race discrimination when states use partisanship to mask it. We need immediate federal legislative reform to address this distortion in districting.” 

The Supreme Court’s hyper-conservative super majority issued a decision that is absolutely catastrophic for the future of the fight for fair maps across the country, especially in the South. 

Martina Tiku, Assistant General Counsel NAACP, explained that the impact of today’s decision will go far beyond just South Carolina’s case as the NAACP has brought similar racial gerrymandering cases in both North Carolina and Tennessee. “This ruling should also concern all citizens who are committed to protecting our democracy and ensuring that black voters across the country have their rights upheld.” 

Today’s opinion is a disaster for the future of fair redistricting, but Justice Thomas’s concurrence illuminates a conservative future that is even more harmful if fully realized.

In his concurrence, Justice Thomas argues that voters should not be able to bring racial gerrymandering claims at all, writing “In my view, the Court has no power to decide these types of claims. Drawing political districts is a task for politicians, not federal judges. There are no judicially manageable standards for resolving claims about districting, and, regardless, the Constitution commits those issues exclusively to the political branches.” Because this is just a concurrence, it is not the law, but it is a concerning alarm bell of the future that the court’s most right-wing justices are willing to entertain. 

Read the opinion here.

Learn more about the case here.

This article was updated on May 23, 2024 at 11:05 a.m. EDT and again at 2:05 p.m. EDT to incorporate parts of the opinion’s dissent, concurrence and reactions to the decision.