A divided Supreme Court on Tuesday blocked a district court’s order that would have required the Louisiana legislature to draw new congressional maps, including a second majority-Black district. The three liberal justices dissented from the brief, unsigned order, which effectively clears the way for Louisiana to use its original map, which the district court found likely violates the federal Voting Rights Act, in the upcoming 2022 elections. The justices also put the case on hold until they decide a similar dispute involving redistricting in Alabama. The court is scheduled to hear oral argument in that case on Oct. 4.
The Louisiana dispute, Ardoin v. Robinson, arose after the Louisiana legislature – over a veto by the state’s Democratic governor, John Bel Edwards – adopted a new congressional map in the wake of the 2020 census. Although Blacks make up nearly a third of the state’s population, only one of the six congressional districts on the new map contained a majority of Black voters.
Voters and civil rights groups challenged the legislature’s map, arguing that it diluted the votes of Black people and violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination in election practices. On June 6, U.S. District Judge Shelly Dick agreed that the challengers had made the case for a second majority-Black House district. She instructed the legislature to draw a revised map with two majority-Black districts for use in the state’s primary elections, scheduled for Nov. 8.
Louisiana’s secretary of state, Kyle Ardoin, went to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, asking that court to freeze Dick’s order. But a three-judge administrative panel rejected that request. In an unsigned opinion, the panel (which consisted of judges appointed by former Presidents Ronald Reagan, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump) concluded that although the challengers “have much to prove when the merits are ultimately decided,” Ardoin had not made the “strong showing” needed to prevail at this preliminary stage.
The panel ruled that the Purcell principle – the idea that federal courts should not change state election rules shortly before an election – did not apply to this case. The filing deadline for candidates is over a month away, while the state’s primary election is still five months away, the panel observed. This case is therefore different from the “classic Purcell case,” the panel suggested, involving an “injunction entered days or weeks before an election – when the election is already underway.”
The panel also expedited Ardoin’s appeal, setting the case for oral argument in early July.
Ardoin came to the Supreme Court on June 17, asking the justices to put the district court’s order on hold by June 20. He told the justices that the 5th Circuit’s refusal to do so had thrown the state “into divisive electoral pandemonium” and created “confusion statewide, all of which undermines confidence in the integrity of upcoming congressional elections.” By requiring the state to draw a new map with two majority-Black districts, he contended, “the district court has ordered a racial gerrymander that ‘by its very nature’ is particularly ‘odious.’”
The challengers urged the justices to keep the district court’s order in place. They emphasized the “185 pages of meticulous factual findings and carefully reasoned legal analysis from four federal judges,” and they pushed back against Ardoin’s contention that drawing a new map with two majority-Black districts would be a racial gerrymander. Although an expert who drew a map with two such districts testified that he was “aware of race during the map drawing process,” race was not the principal factor in creating the map.
There is enough time for the state to implement the new congressional map, the challengers added, noting that early voting does not begin until October. Indeed, they said, a lawyer for the governor testified that the state has successfully implemented last-minute changes to the state’s election dates and deadlines in the past.
In a one-paragraph order on Tuesday afternoon, the justices put the district court’s order on hold and granted a request from Ardoin to add the case to the Supreme Court’s merits docket, effectively bypassing the 5th Circuit. The justices put the case on hold until they issue their decision in the Alabama case, Merrill v. Milligan. A decision in Merrill is likely early next year.
The court’s three liberal justices – Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan – indicated that they would have denied the state’s request to block the district court order. They also disagreed with the court’s decision to take up the case without waiting for the 5th Circuit to weigh in.
This post is also published on SCOTUSblog.