How the U.S Supreme Court is poised to roll back decades of progress on racial equity | Opinion

In an Alabama case, the Supreme Court could to finish off the Voting Rights Act, an action with disastrous consequences for communities of color across the nation

A view of the front portico of the United States Supreme Court building in Washington, DC.

By Salewa Ogunmefun

The United States Supreme Court recentlu heard oral arguments in Merrill v. Milligan, a case originating in Alabama that challenges key elements of the Voting Rights Act. In 2013, the Supreme Court eroded the VRA with its holding in Shelby County v. Holder, and we fear our present day SCOTUS may use this case to eliminate the remaining protections under the Act.

As Justice Elena Kagan noted during oral arguments, under longstanding Supreme Court precedents regarding the use of race in drawing Congressional maps, dismissing this case would have been a “slam dunk.” Unfortunately, the current court has shown little to no respect for precedent, choosing instead to work backwards from their desired outcomes, as demonstrated by Dobbs v. Jackson, which undermined the long-standing federally protected right to seek an abortion, this past summer.

In this case, the Supreme Court will have the opportunity to finish off the VRA, a decision that would have disastrous consequences for communities of color across the nation.

The case before SCOTUS this week raises the question of whether it is permissible to take race into account when drawing Congressional maps.

The proposed Alabama maps divide Alabama’s Black population so egregiously that there is only one district in the state in which Black voters would have the opportunity to send to Congress a candidate who truly represents them and their interests, and its impact could be felt nationwide.

Alabama case that could limit Voting Rights Act heard at U.S. Supreme Court

If the court rules in favor of Alabama,  maps in 15 other states will be called into question, and the decision has the potential to disenfranchise millions of BIPOC voters across the country.

When the VRA was enacted, Congress sought to ensure that the United States was a true multiracial democracy and used the VRA as a tool to advance racial equity, and guarantee equal voting rights for all.

Until recently, the Voting Rights Act wasn’t remotely controversial. In fact, in 2006, under President George W. Bush, it was reauthorized with a Senate vote of 98-0. The attacks on the law in recent years represent a startling reversal of the significant progress towards greater racial equity that has been achieved since its passing.

While Pennsylvania’s congressional maps aren’t threatened by this case, Merrill v Milligan could set a precedent that might threaten the new state level legislative maps that were adopted earlier this year, even though those maps have been described as “the best in Pennsylvania’s history,” and “probably the best election maps in the country.”  

We at Pennsylvania Voice, along with our partner organizations across the commonwealth, advocated strongly that the new legislative maps be drawn with racial equity as a value, particularly to remedy historical disenfranchisement.

Our efforts in this regard were largely successful. The representation in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives will hopefully – and finally – reflect the long held principle that the voters should choose their representatives, not the other way around.

House Majority Leader Rep. Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, filed a suit alleging that the new maps are discriminatory because they take race into account, which he believes is unconstitutional under state and federal law.

Although not specifically stated in Benninghoff’s petition, it is easy to see that Benninghoff’s argument advances a belief that white people are harmed when creating congressional maps that improve voting rights for people of color, something he clearly wishes to avoid.

As Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson noted in oral arguments, arguments like these fly directly in the face of the intent of the framers of the 14th Amendment, but this Supreme Court is open to considering them seriously.

LRC Chair Mark Nordenberg took the Voting Rights Act into account throughout the process, relying on his years of experience as an esteemed professor of law  and believes that the maps are acceptable and in compliance with federal and state law. He said of the maps, “The map itself is a map that favors the Republicans. It doesn’t favor them as much as the current map does, but that is a product of the changing demographics of the Commonwealth.”

The simple fact is that all population growth in the past 10 years in Pennsylvania has been driven by growth in BIPOC communities, and these maps reflect that mathematical reality.

A ruling in Merrill that guts the Voting Rights Act would set the stage for the court to reverse the maps that BIPOC communities worked so hard to achieve. If the maps are overturned it would represent a profound injustice, and Pennsylvania’s BIPOC communities will continue to fight for the power we deserve.

Salewa Ogunmefun is the executive director of the voting rights group Pennsylvania Voice.

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Capital-Star Guest Contributor
Capital-Star Guest Contributor

The Pennsylvania Capital-Star welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation on how politics and public policy affects the day-to-day lives of people across the commonwealth.