The Lesson of Alabama

Red background with blue image of the Voting Rights Act with the red flag of the state of Alabama (with a big red "X") laid over the law document.

On June 11, 1963, George Wallace, Alabama’s segregationist governor, defiantly stood in front of the doors at the Foster Auditorium on the Alabama University campus to block two newly enrolled Black students from entering. Earlier that month, a federal judge ordered that the students be permitted to enroll and attend university classes.

Wallace almost certainly knew he would not succeed in preventing the desegregation of the university. But, having previously promised his white supporters “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” he relished the political theater of standing there with his arms crossed.

Sixty years later, almost to the day, the U.S Supreme Court rejected Alabama’s latest effort to ignore the law and a lower court order requiring the state to adopt a congressional map that complied with the Voting Rights Act (VRA). Once again, Alabama officials chose political theater over complying with a court order.

Following the 2020 census and reapportionment, Alabama enacted a new congressional map that violated the Voting Rights Act. The illegal map contained only a single district in which Black Alabamians could elect their candidate of choice.

When Alabama was sued and lost before a three-judge panel, it went to the Supreme Court expecting a friendlier reception. Last June, however, the Supreme Court rejected Alabama’s larger effort to gut the law. Instead, in a 5-4 decision, the Court affirmed its longstanding interpretation of Section 2 of the VRA as applied to redistricting.

With the sting of a loss in the Supreme Court still fresh, Alabama asked the trial court for several weeks to enact a new map. Yet, instead of drawing a new map with two Black-opportunity districts, the state again enacted a map with only one. The ghost of George Wallace might have been smiling, but the three judges were not amused:

We are disturbed by the evidence that the State delayed remedial proceedings but ultimately did not even nurture the ambition to provide the required remedy. And we are struck by the extraordinary circumstance we face. We are not aware of any other case in which a state legislature — faced with a federal court order declaring that its electoral plan unlawfully dilutes minority votes and requiring a plan that provides an additional opportunity district — responded with a plan that the state concedes does not provide that district.

Over the course of the next month, Alabama again sought Supreme Court intervention and failed. Meanwhile, the trial court turned to a court-retained expert, called a special master, to consider various maps offered by the parties and the public and to draw their own.

On Oct. 5, over the defiant objections of Alabama, the court adopted a map for 2024 that meets the requirements of federal law. Alabama insists it will continue to litigate for 2026 and beyond.

Legal commentators have speculated that Alabama’s strategy in the remedial map phase was premised on a genuine belief that the Supreme Court would reverse itself. In this telling, Alabama defied the trial court’s order this summer because it believed that it could achieve a favorable outcome if it went back to the Supreme Court.

Republican-controlled legislatures are ignoring the law because they have decided that defiance is good politics.

I do not embrace this theory. Why would Alabama believe that the Supreme Court would reverse itself in the same case three months after it last ruled against the state?

The more likely reason Alabama forfeited its ability to enact a new, compliant map is that — like George Wallace — the state wanted to show its white supporters that it would not abide by a federal court order. For Alabama, defying the court was not an unfortunate necessity to obtain further court review, it was the point.

Unfortunately, we are seeing similar behavior elsewhere. In Louisiana, the Republican-controlled Legislature is fighting a similar battle. When a trial court ordered the creation of a second Black-opportunity district, the state sought Supreme Court review. After it rejected Alabama’s arguments, the high court sent the Louisiana case back to the lower court. Like Alabama, Louisiana seems dug into continuing the fight.

Meanwhile Georgia is facing a similar VRA lawsuit over its congressional map. Once again, the issue is whether Georgia violated the VRA in failing to create an additional Black-opportunity district in the Atlanta area. And, once again, the state is engaged in a full-on attack on the VRA.

Rather than simply enacting a new map, Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R) and other state defendants are going a step further — arguing that Black Georgians cannot even sue under the VRA and that the landmark legislation may be unconstitutional. As outrageous as they are, these claims serve as a dog whistle pitched to the ears of white conservative voters.

In Ohio, Republican lawmakers ignored five sequential court orders over its legislative redistricting map. In Florida, the state is defending its congressional map — which directly violates the state constitution — in part on the grounds that the Florida Constitution itself is illegal.

I could go on and on.

Republican-controlled legislatures are ignoring the law because they have decided that defiance is good politics. The same impulse that led former President Donald Trump to falsely claim that he did not lose the 2020 election — even after court after court told him he did — is now infecting the rest of the party. Like Wallace, modern-day Republicans would rather be forced to step aside than do the right thing. That is the lesson of Alabama 60 years ago and today.