For Richard Pildes, another round, another victory in Alabama voting rights case

The day Donald Trump was sworn in as president, a federal court issued a ruling in a case likely to shape voting in the next national election. It was another big litigation win for Sudler Family Professor of Constitutional Law Richard Pildes, a leading expert in election law and the Law of Democracy. As most eyes were focused on the inauguration ceremony and crowds in Washington, Pildes received an email from the US District Court for the Middle District of Alabama informing him of the decision in Alabama Legislative Black Caucus v. Alabama.

Richard PildesPildes argued the case more than two years ago before the US Supreme Court, representing plaintiffs who had challenged a race-based state redistricting plan adopted by the Alabama legislature in 2012. The state, the plaintiffs alleged, misapplied the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA) by excessively packing African Americans into majority-minority districts. This, they said, unconstitutionally segregated voters by race and diluted the strength of African American voters. When black voters are packed into districts in this way, Pildes explains, Republicans tend to benefit overall because there is less of an ability for inter-racial political coalitions to form that might elect Democrats outside these districts.

In a 5–4 decision in March 2015, the Supreme Court agreed, remanding the case to the federal district court to apply a correct understanding of the VRA to Alabama’s election districts. In a Montgomery, Alabama, courtroom, Pildes argued the remand before the same panel that, in a 2–1 ruling, had rejected plaintiffs’ claims in 2013, before Pildes was involved. Statewide redistricting cases are heard by special three-judge federal panels that include one US Court of Appeals judge, and the majority in the 2013 ruling included Judge William Pryor Jr. of the US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, who had been on President Trump’s short list of nominees to fill the current Supreme Court vacancy.

On January 20, Pryor reversed course, joining the two other judges on the panel to hand Pildes and his clients a substantial victory. In a 500-page majority opinion, the judges accepted the plaintiffs’ claims that one-third of Alabama’s black-majority election districts were unconstitutional racial gerrymanders. In a 200-page partial dissent, Judge Myron Thompson said he would have found another third of these districts to be unconstitutional as well.

Pildes says he is “extremely pleased” with the result thus far—though the plaintiffs are still considering whether to go back to the Supreme Court to challenge the additional districts that Thompson would also have held unconstitutional. Moreover, Pildes points out, the 2015 Supreme Court ruling in the case “has already had significant ramifications throughout the South,” with the precedent being applied in other VRA lawsuits, including two cases that were recently argued before the Supreme Court.

Posted February 23, 2017