May 23, 2024

Alexander v. South Carolina State Conference of the NAACP

Today, the Supreme Court issued a 6-3 decision in Alexander v. South Carolina State Conference of the NAACP. This case focused on a claim that South Carolina racially gerrymandered their congressional map in the wake of the 2020 census.

What You Need to Know

  • Question before the Court: Did South Carolina unconstitutionally racially gerrymander their congressional map?
  • What happened during oral argument: Justice Kagan aptly noted that it is because of the Supreme Court’s 2019 decision in Rucho v. Common Cause that South Carolina can publicly claim partisan gerrymandering as a defense for its racial gerrymandering. The oral argument highlighted this conundrum of the Court’s own making, with some time spent debating whether race could lawfully be used as a proxy in a self-professed partisan gerrymander, but the majority of the discussion focused on how plaintiffs in cases where alleged racial gerrymandering has taken place should be required to prove that race was the motivating factor as opposed to political advantage.
  • What did the Court decide: In a 6-3 decision along ideological lines, the Court overturned a lower court’s holding that South Carolina violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution when it racially gerrymandered its congressional map following the 2020 census. Writing for the majority, Justice Alito articulated a new rule for such claims: that federal courts begin with “a presumption that the legislature acted in good faith.” And in spite of an assertion that the Court was reviewing for clear error, Justice Alito then engaged in a thorough review of the expert reports submitted below, taking issue with their methodology and, as Justice Kagan noted in her dissent, eventually declaring that the majority “knows better than the District Court what happened in a South Carolina map-drawing room.” The majority went further, requiring that plaintiffs in this type of racial gerrymandering case produce an acceptable alternative map and finding that the plaintiffs’ failure to do so in Alexander “should be interpreted […] as an implicit concession that the plaintiff cannot draw a map that undermines the legislature’s defense that the districting lines were ‘based on a permissible, rather than a prohibited, ground,’” despite the Court’s own ruling in 2017 that no such map was required.
  • Take Away: The Court’s decision in Alexander will open the door wide to racial gerrymandering. As Justice Kagan noted in dissent, parties challenging racially gerrymandered maps as violative of the Equal Protection Clause will almost always lose, “because the State had a ‘possible’ story to tell about not considering race—even if the opposite story was the more credible.”