By Joseph Ax
(Reuters) -Alabama's Republican-backed congressional map illegally dilutes Black residents' voting power and must be redrawn, a panel of three federal judges ruled on Tuesday, a decision that the state said it would appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
That appeal plan escalated the stakes of a judicial decision that boosted Democratic chances to win back a U.S. House of Representatives majority in the 2024 congressional elections.
The lower court's ruling marked the second time that the judges threw out a map delineating the boundaries of the seven U.S. House districts in Alabama put in place by the Republican-controlled state legislature. The three-judge panel in Birmingham wrote that it saw little reason to give the state legislature a third chance. Instead, a court-appointed special master will create a new electoral map ahead of next year's vote, the judges decided.
At issue was whether the Republican-drawn map violated a bedrock federal civil rights law, the 1965 Voting Rights Act, that prohibits racial discrimination in voting.
"We have now said twice that this Voting Rights Act case is not close," the judges wrote. "And we are deeply troubled that the state enacted a map that the state readily admits does not provide the remedy we said federal law requires."
Under the Republican map, only one of the state's U.S. House districts is majority Black even though Black residents make up more than a quarter of the state's population. The state's lone Democratic U.S. representative, Terri Sewell, represents that district.
The panel first intervened in 2022, ruling that an earlier Republican plan was illegal. After the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the panel's decision in June, the Birmingham court ordered Alabama legislators to create a second district with either a Black majority or "something quite close" to comply with the Voting Rights Act. The law bars lawmakers from drawing district lines in a manner that discriminates against minority voters.
The latest plan increased the number of Black voters in a second district but fell short of a majority, prompting civil rights groups to challenge the new map in court once again.
The office of state Attorney General Steve Marshall, a Republican, said, "While we are disappointed in (Tuesday's) decision, we strongly believe that the legislature's map complies with the Voting Rights Act and the recent decision of the U.S. Supreme Court."
Alabama's Republican Secretary of State Wes Allen in filings submitted to the lower court disclosed plans to appeal to the Supreme Court and the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The plaintiffs who challenged Alabama's map, including the state chapter of the NAACP, in a joint statement said: "Alabama openly admits its intention to defy the law and the U.S. Supreme Court. But we will not back down."
The Alabama case is among several legal battles over redistricting that could result in new congressional maps in at least half a dozen states, enough to determine congressional control in the November 2024 elections. Republicans hold a slim 222-213 majority in the U.S. House.
A Florida state judge on Saturday ruled that a redistricting plan advanced by Republican Governor Ron DeSantis violated the state constitution by diminishing the power of Black voters in northern Florida. The judge ordered lawmakers back to the drawing board.
The Supreme Court in June allowed a challenge to Louisiana's congressional map to advance. A federal court has ordered lawmakers to draw a second majority-Black district. A U.S. appeals court is set to review the case next month.
The Voting Rights Act was passed at a time when Southern states including Alabama enforced policies blocking Black people from casting ballots.
Electoral districts are redrawn each decade to reflect population changes as measured by a national census, last taken in 2020. In most states, such redistricting is done by the party in power, which can lead to map manipulation for partisan gain.
(Reporting by Joseph Ax, additional reporting by John Kruzel; Editing by Colleen Jenkins, Bill Berkrot and Will Dunham)