The Supreme Court said Monday it will consider a challenge from Alabama Democrats who say a Republican-drawn legislative map intentionally packs black Democrats into a few voting districts, giving them too little influence in the Legislature and shutting out white Democrats in the process.
The justices agreed to hear a pair of appeals from the Alabama Legislative Black Caucus and other Democratic lawmakers who contend the new map created in 2012 illegally limits black voting strength and makes it harder to elect white Democrats outside the majority-black districts.
A panel of three federal judges had ruled 2-1 last year that the new districts were not discriminatory and did not violate the Voting Rights Act or the Constitution.
Joe Reed, chairman of the Alabama Democratic Conference, said the Republican-designed districts were contrived to reduce the number of black voters in majority white districts.
"They were doing their level best to wipe out white Democrats," he said. "They were trying their best to have a Legislature of white Republicans and black Democrats, and then they could ignore the black Democrats."
The Legislature had to redraw political boundaries to reflect population shifts in the 2010 Census. Alabama Republican Attorney General Luther Strange has said the new legislative districts are consistent with federal law.
Republican Alabama state Sen. Gerald Dial, co-chairman of the Legislature's Redistricting Committee, said the plan cleared the Justice Department and a three-judge panel without any problems, and he was surprised by the Supreme Court agreeing to review it.
"It's a total shock to me because we met all the guidelines that were in place at the time. But this is part of the process," he said.
Democrats contend that despite population shifts, the new map contains the same number of districts with majority black populations that were in a legislative redistricting plan produced a decade ago, when Democrats still controlled the Legislature. The plan has eight of the 35 Senate districts and 28 of the 105 House districts with a majority of black residents.
The three-judge panel rejected the claim about diluting black voter strength. In the majority decision, U.S. Circuit Judge Bill Pryor wrote that "the overwhelming evidence in the record suggests that black voters will have an equal opportunity to participate in the political process the same as everyone else." He was joined by U.S. District Judge Keith Watkins.
The lone black judge on the panel, U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson, dissented.
Tuesday's primary election will be the first to use the new districts. Dial said the outcome of the case may not be known until after the legislative elections are completed in the general election Nov. 4.
Reed, the state's Democratic Conference chairman, said he's hopeful the Supreme Court will order the Legislature to draw new districts and then Alabama will hold another legislative election. That occurred in 1983 when the plan drawn by the Legislature using the 1980 Census got struck down in court.
Alabama Republicans had similarly challenged the districts drawn by the Legislature's then-Democratic majority after the 2000 Census, but they also lost. Republicans gained control of the Legislature in the 2010 election.
Reed also said he's concerned the Supreme Court's review could go the other way, based on the court's ruling last year that wiped out a major provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. "I don't want the court to use this case to further undermine black representation," he said.
The Supreme Court's decision last year effectively gutted the part of the Voting Rights Act which required all or parts of 15 mainly Southern states to submit all voting changes for approval from Washington before they could take effect.
The cases are Alabama Legislative Black Caucus v. State of Alabama, 13-895, and Alabama Democratic Conference v. Alabama, 13-1138.
Associated Press Writer Phillip Rawls in Montgomery, Alabama, contributed to this report.
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