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Making the seat "safer" not "whiter"

U.S. Supreme Court in South Carolina Congressional case: Lower court was wrong in its racial gerrymandering ruling


High court overturns ruling in part, sends case back to federal panel for further analysis ---

A federal court “clearly erred” in determining that South Carolina legislators racially gerrymandered congressional voting lines to keep the coastal 1st District red, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Thursday in sending the case back to the three-judge panel for further analysis on a separate question.

Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the majority, repeatedly used the terms “clearly erred” and “clearly erroneous” to describe the lower court’s reasoning for its 2023 ruling that the lines were unconstitutionally drawn.

“To sum up our analysis so far, no direct evidence supports the District Court’s finding that race predominated in the design of District 1,” Alito wrote, further calling the lower court’s approach “seriously misguided.”

In this redistricting case, the question was whether the GOP-controlled Legislature based its admittedly partisan aim on voters’ race as they moved precincts between the 1st and 6th districts.

The Legislature’s GOP leaders testified the goal was to make the 1st District safer for a Republican, following a flip to blue in 2018 and a narrow flip back to red in 2020. The chief map drawer testified using political data on precincts that voted Democrat in 2020 to move the lines. Their testimony easily explains the final map, the majority of justices concluded.

The opinion noted the map was drawn with input from U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, the state’s longest-serving congressman and only Democrat, “whose recommendations would have preserved the strong Democratic tilt” in his adjoining 6th District.

“The circumstantial evidence falls far short of showing that race, not partisan preferences, drove the districting process, and none of the expert reports offered by the Challengers provides any significant support for their position,” Alito wrote.

Justice Elena Kagan, who wrote the 34-page dissenting opinion, was joined by liberal Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ketanji Brown Jackson, the court’s newest member.

Kagan scoffed at the majority’s reasoning.

“The Challengers introduced more than enough evidence of racial gerrymandering to support the District Court’s judgment,” she wrote. “The majority picks and chooses evidence to its liking; ignores or minimizes less convenient proof; disdains the panel’s judgments about witness credibility; and makes a series of mistakes about expert opinions.”

Alito spent several pages of his own opinion to dismiss Kagan’s criticisms.

The case will return to the lower court to re-evaluate challengers’ separate claim of voter dilution. Alito said the judges’ ruling on that was tied to the faulty reasoning on racial gerrymandering.

“In light of our conclusion that those findings were clearly erroneous, that conclusion cannot stand,” Alito wrote.

Justice Clarence Thomas agreed with most of Alito’s conclusions but wrote a separate opinion disagreeing that any further analysis is needed.

The complaint “combines two stereotypes by assuming that black South Carolinians can be properly represented only by a black Democrat,” Thomas wrote. “The vote dilution analysis in this case inevitably reduces black Charlestonians to partisan pawns and racial tokens. The analysis is demeaning to the courts asked to perform it, to say nothing of the black voters that it stereotypes.”

The three lower court judges — Richard Gergel, Mary Geiger Lewis and Toby Heytens — ruled in January 2023 that state lawmakers drew the coastal 1st District, held by Republican Nancy Mace, in a way that discriminates against Black voters.

The judicial panel sided with the NAACP, ACLU of South Carolina and Taiwan Scott, a Black Hilton Head Island resident who lives in the 1st District, who sued after the Legislature approved new lines following the 2020 census.

“It’s as though we don’t matter, but we do matter, and our voices should be heard,” Scott told reporters after the ruling. “It’s sad to see the decision after, you know, three federal judges ruled we were racially gerrymandered. But we won’t stop.”

The U.S. Supreme Court ruling changes nothing for this year’s elections.

The lower court initially put South Carolina’s congressional elections on hold until a new map was drawn. But in late March, the judges reluctantly agreed to let this year’s elections continue as scheduled with the Legislature’s 2022 map, since the nation’s high court had yet to weigh in and candidate filing for the June party primaries was just days from concluding.

In the 1st District, three Republicans, including Mace, and two Democrats are competing in the June 11 primaries. In the 6th District, Clyburn has no primary challenger. Two Republicans are facing off for the opportunity to challenge him in November. But Clyburn is expected to easily win a 17th term.


Seanna Adcox is a South Carolina native with three decades of reporting experience. She joined States Newsroom in September 2023 after covering the S.C. Legislature and state politics for 18 years. Her previous employers include The Post and Courier and The Associated Press.

SC Daily Gazette is part of States Newsroom, the nation’s largest state-focused nonprofit news organization.