A panel of three federal judges in Birmingham sent Alabama’s redistricting plan back to the state legislature Monday, unanimously ruling that the map as drawn dilutes the voting power of Black residents.

The panel, made up of U.S. Circuit Judge Stanley Marcus, appointed by President Bill Clinton, and U.S. District Judges Anna Manasco and Terry Moore, both appointed by President Donald Trump, said the state should consider drawing a second majority-Black district or one with a more substantial Black population.

Three court cases challenging the plan, which was based on the 2020 Census, were combined and heard by the three-judge panel in United States District Court, Northern District of Alabama, in the Hugo Black Federal Courthouse in Birmingham earlier this month.

Blacks comprise 27% of Alabama’s population, yet only constitute a majority in one of the state’s seven congressional districts, or 14% of the state's districts. Alabama’s 7th Congressional District, currently represented by Democrat U.S. Representative Terri Sewell, was first drawn in 1992.

"The Legislature enjoys broad discretion and may consider a wide range of remedial plans," the ruling said. "As the Legislature considers such plans, it should be mindful of the practical reality, based on the ample evidence of intensely racially polarized voting adduced during the preliminary injunction proceedings, that any remedial plan will need to include two districts in which Black voters either comprise a voting-age majority or something quite close to it."

The ruling added that “Black voters have less opportunity than other Alabamians to elect candidates of their choice to Congress.”

The legislature-approved map featuring the updated districts was scheduled to take effect this Thursday. As a result, qualification for Alabama political candidates was extended through Feb. 11, since new districts will have to be drawn, the panel said.

The Court expressed optimism that the State Legislative Committee on Reapportionment has the ability to come up with a revised plan within two weeks.

“We are confident that the legislature can accomplish its task,” the judges said, saying the legislature came up with the most recent plan “in a matter of days.”

However, the opinion also ordered State Sen. Jim McClendon and State Rep. Chris Pringle, co-chairs of the Committee, to advise the Court if the Legislature is unable to pass a plan, in which case the Court may retain an expert to draw a map that complies with federal law.

State Representative Andrew Sorrell (R-Muscle Shoals) told 1819 News that the ruling may send the state legislature into another special session.

"This is a complete mess,'' he said. "We need to go ahead and address this in the special session. I don’t know if they can have the maps drawn in time."

However, Sorrell said that while qualifying for office has been pushed back, he didn't think the current state primary, set for May 24th, needed to be delayed.

The plaintiffs and their attorneys applauded the ruling.

“Black people drove a disproportionate share of Alabama’s population growth," said NAACP Legal Defense Fund Senior Counsel Deuel Ross. Throughout last year, Black Alabamians publicly called on the Legislature to recognize this reality and sought equal representation in Congress. “The state ignored these demands, but we are deeply gratified that the unanimous court found that Black voters deserve full representation now. We look forward to working with the Legislature to ensure that Black voters are fairly represented in any remedial map.”

Attorneys arguing for the state plan said maps followed traditional redistricting lines, and that adjustments to boundaries were made without regard to race. Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall’s office said an appeal is forthcoming.

“The Attorney General's Office strongly disagrees with the court's decision and will be appealing in the coming days,” said Mike Lewis, a Marshall spokesman, in an email statement.

The appeal will likely hinge on whether the Court’s mandate of creating a second majority-minority district is a legal remedy under the Voting Rights Act or is itself judicially sanctioned gerrymandering. Under the Supreme Court's precedents, gerrymandering is a political issue, not a legal issue, with the lone exception of racial gerrymandering.

“We’ve said since the beginning that we would refuse to let unconstitutional maps be used without a fight, so we are pleased that the court recognized the importance of urgently remedying the congressional district maps ahead of November's election,” said Tish Gotell Faulks, legal director for the ACLU of Alabama.

Sewell, Alabama’s lone Democrat representative in Washington, D.C., released the following statement:

“Monumental news from the court! Increasing political representation of Black Alabamians is exactly what John Lewis and the Foot Soldiers who marched across the bridge in my hometown of Selma fought for. It is the reason why I am the lead sponsor of the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and have led efforts to get it signed into law.

“I am carefully reviewing the opinion and I look forward to working with the Alabama Legislature to fulfill the court’s mandate.”

The trial was as cumbersome as it was consequential, as detailed by the court’s (225 pages) opinion. The parties filed more than 1,000 pages of briefs, plus reports and rebuttal reports from eleven expert witnesses, 350 hearing exhibits, 75 pages of joint stipulations, and arguments from forty-three lawyers. In total, the transcript for the hearing ran over 2,000 pages. 

Every 10 years, new political maps are drawn as part of the redistricting process by using census data. As the ACLU’s statement noted, this is the first redistricting cycle since the enactment of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 without pre-clearance from the Department of Justice.

(1819 News Senior Reporter Brandon Moseley and Editor in Chief Ray Melick contributed to this report).

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