Georgia Judge Takes Pains To Avoid Big Voting Rights Act Question In New Maps Ruling

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 20: U.S. Representative Lucy McBath (GA-7) (Photo by Shannon Finney/Getty Images for The Rocket Foundation)
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U.S. District Judge Steve Jones upheld Republican legislators’ new Georgia congressional map Thursday, a blow to House Democrats’ efforts to win the lower chamber — but was careful to avoid the most far-reaching question embedded in the case. 

When Georgia Republicans crafted the new court-ordered map, they dismantled Rep. Lucy McBath’s (D-GA) district to maintain their 9-5 seat advantage in the U.S. House. McBath’s district is composed of a coalition of Asian, Latino and Black voters who typically vote the same way — Democratic — to elect the candidate of their choice. 

The plaintiffs in the case argued that the Republicans’ obliteration of that district was itself a Voting Rights Act violation, raising a hugely consequential and still undecided question about whether VRA protections extend to those districts the same way they do ones dominated by a majority of one minority group. There is a circuit split on the question — the 11th and 5th Circuit Courts of Appeals have ruled that the VRA does protect such districts, though the 5th Circuit is poised to possibly overturn its own precedent on the question. The 6th Circuit has ruled the opposite way. 

If Jones had addressed the question — which will likely be ultimately resolved at the Supreme Court — it would at least add another data point to one argument or the other. But in his Thursday ruling, he was careful to avoid it, suggesting that it might behoove interested parties to raise the question more explicitly in a separate case.

“There was no evidence introduced at trial regarding a coalition of minority voters,” he wrote. “In essence, Plaintiffs now seek to litigate a whole new basis for a Section 2 violation involving a combination of three minority groups at the remedial stage of their case — which up until now has involved only Black voters. This is the type of challenge to a remedial districting plan that demands development of significant new evidence and therefore is more appropriately addressed in a separate proceeding.”

He made clear that no part of his decision should be taken as commentary on that argument, but that it requires fuller briefing. 

The next venue scheduled to interrogate the arguments on the reach of the VRA’s power is the 5th Circuit, which plans in May to hear a case out of Galveston County, Texas that presses on the same question. As a panel there asked the full court to hear the case for the purpose of overturning its precedent — that the VRA does protect coalitions of minority groups — it seems unlikely that its precedent is long for this world. Either way, a circuit split would endure, making it more likely that the Supreme Court will get involved. 

The high court’s fingerprints, its years of dismantling the VRA, permeate Jones’ decision. He wrote elsewhere in the opinion that Georgia’s map, while legal by his lights, was clearly crafted to give Republicans a lopsided advantage — a move that the Supreme Court has blessed. 

“The committee and floor debate transcripts make clear that the General Assembly created the 2023 Remedial Congressional Plan in a manner that politically protected the majority party (i.e., the Republican Party) as much as possible,” he wrote. 

“However, redistricting decisions by a legislative body with an eye toward securing partisan advantage does not alone violate Section 2,” he added, citing a 2019 Supreme Court decision. 

Read Jones’ ruling here: 

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