In Charleston, South Carolina, colorful low country cottages and southern plantation homes stand tall and proud on palm tree-lined cobblestone streets. The peninsula of Charleston is surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean, beckoning water sports enthusiasts, golfers, and vacationers looking to relax in luxury resorts and homes. But hidden just underneath the surface of these glimmering indulgences is a deeply troublesome history: Charleston was once North America’s largest trans-Atlantic slave trade port, as 150,000-200,000 trafficked Africans arrived in the United States through Charleston Harbor from 1670 until the trans-Atlantic slave trade was outlawed in 1808. Charleston, and the entire state of South Carolina, profited from the subjugation of Black communities in myriad ways — from slavery to Jim Crow, to redlining and employment discrimination, to the denial of the right to vote — building the riches of the state off the backs of Black men and women while denying them basic civil and human rights for generations. Until 2015, the Confederate flag flew over the State Capitol in a place of pride, where it had flown for 54 years. This history is what undergirds the infrastructure of the state.
It is a history that also provides necessary context for the case for which Legal Defense Fund (LDF) Senior Counsel Leah Aden recently presented oral argument at the United States Supreme Court on Oct. 11, 2023. Alexander v. South Carolina State Conference of the NAACP epitomizes how South Carolina has sought to undermine Black political power through the redistricting process — and how LDF has worked tirelessly to guard against this incursion. We’ll take a deeper dive into how oral argument day unfolded, but first, here’s some brief background about LDF’s work to fight against racial discrimination in voting in South Carolina — a long road ultimately leading to the Supreme Court.
When it comes to voting rights and protecting equal access to political power, South Carolina has a sordid history. In 2012, LDF challenged a racially discriminatory voter ID law proposed by state lawmakers that would later go into effect in 2013, and in 2020, LDF challenged South Carolina’s voting policies that put Black voters at risk during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Notably, South Carolina’s redistricting maps, which are redrawn every 10 years following the Census and determine the boundaries of state legislative and congressional districts, have been litigated every decade since 1970. So, in 2021, when the pandemic-delayed redistricting cycle started and the maps that would determine the new allocation of power in the state were being drawn, civil rights organizations, including LDF, buckled in for what they anticipated would be a challenging redistricting season.
Knowing the state’s history of denying voters of color their constitutional right, LDF sent letters to the South Carolina Senate Judicial Committee, House Redistricting Committee, and the South Carolina Association of Counties, School Board Association, and Municipal Association reminding them of their duty to comply with Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which bars racial discrimination in the redistricting process, and urging transparency from lawmakers throughout the entire process.
On Dec. 23, 2021, LDF, along with the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of South Carolina, Boroughs Bryant LLC, Arnold & Porter, and the general counsel’s office of the NAACP filed a legal challenge to the congressional district map the South Carolina House ultimately submitted. The suit was filed on behalf of the South Carolina State Conference of the NAACP and an individual voter, Taiwan Scott. It charged that the state’s 1st Congressional District, which contains Charleston, is a racial gerrymander that intentionally packs and cracks Black residents — an act that denies them equal opportunity to participate in the political process and elect candidates of their choice. The lawsuit also argued that legislators hid behind arbitrary and flimsy justifications for their discrimination when drawing the map. On the state’s part, South Carolina claimed it didn’t gerrymander on the basis of race, but rather partisanship, which the Supreme Court has found to be non-justiciable, or not capable of being decided by law, in federal courts.
After an eight-day trial in the case where LDF and co-counsel presented witnesses who provided robust evidence demonstrating how the congressional map denies Black voters their guaranteed rights, a unanimous panel of federal judges agreed that the map was discriminatory in January 2023. Further, the court attested in its decision that the congressional map engaged in an “effective bleaching” of Charleston, made a “mockery” of a traditional redistricting principle, and that the state must redraw the map in a manner that complied with redistricting laws and did not use race as a proxy for political affiliation. But, just a few months later, lawmakers and election officials appealed the ruling from the lower court and in May the U.S. Supreme Court elected to hear the case.
On the morning of Oct. 11, LDF Senior Counsel Aden arrived at the Supreme Court, ready to give oral argument in Alexander v. South Carolina State Conference of the NAACP. It was a breezy day and 1 First St. NE, where the court is located, welcomed law students, LDF and co-counsel staff, South Carolina organizers, and tourists eager to hear the latest argument that would impact the future of equal representation.
LDF Assistant Counsel Antonio Ingram, one of the legal team members who worked on preparations for Alexander, reflected on the significance of the case and the day in an interview for this piece. The case “sends a message to legislative bodies across the country and on both sides of the political aisle that Black voters are not a monolith — and that Black voters cannot be used as political pawns for partisan goals,” he emphasizes.
Scott, the case’s individual named plaintiff, also reflected on the case’s significance in an interview ahead of argument day. He emphasizes that he agreed to join the lawsuit because the case is “very important,” and it “elevates … Black communities’ outstanding issues in regard to the lack of representation.”
“Loss of our historical Gullah Geechee land, lack of infrastructure, highway [and] airport expansions which negatively impact communities, and sustainable economic opportunities, are just a few of the issues which need addressing. I remain prayerfully positive that the Supreme Court will agree unanimously with the S.C. District Court and a precedence will be set, showing South Carolina that historical and systemic violations of our constitution will no longer be tolerated!” Scott emphasizes.
Aden quietly ducked into the court, no doubt relishing the few minutes of calm before she had to deliver oral argument before the highest court in the nation. She looked calm, confident, and prepared. As the last few people in line were permitted entry to watch the argument as audience members, a nearby rally hosted by the Southern Coalition for Social Justice and the NAACP began. Speakers implored the court to uphold the district court’s ruling and protect Black voters. And as the trial began, chants of “no justice, no peace” rang through the air.
Many people outside of the court also listened to the oral argument livestream on their phones — and there was a feeling that passed through the crowd that this moment was history in the making. Only a handful of Black women have argued before the Supreme Court, and, as we grapple with a Supreme Court that can seem increasingly skeptical of civil rights cases involving race and gender, this argument carried the weight of a potential defining moment.
Inside the court, Aden stood before the justices and presented an argument that showed how South Carolina disproportionately and discriminatorily targeted Black voters for movement outside of Congressional District No. 1. “ … The unrebutted expert evidence is that race was a better predictor for movement [than political affiliation] and that … Black voters were significantly and disproportionately targeted for movement,” she argued. She addressed questions from the justices with ease and, after 41 minutes, her argument concluded.
Once everyone’s arguments wrapped, the session ended and Aden, flanked by plaintiffs, the case’s legal team, and her colleagues, descended the court’s steps. The group surrounding her beamed with the knowledge that Aden presented an impressive and extremely competent legal argument before the Court. Nerves always underlie an argument day, but Aden and the group seemed filled with hope for a decision that rightfully reaffirms the lower court’s ruling.
Following the argument, the team joined a press conference at the base of the court’s steps. While at the podium, Adriel I. Cepeda Derieux, the Deputy Director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Program and co-counsel in the case, emphasized that “this case is pretty straightforward. It should be a pretty straightforward application of what the court has said before, that you cannot use race as a proxy for partisanship.”
During the presser, Aden added she was “optimistic that the court will see its decision as easy … in finding that Mr. Scott and the NAACP of South Carolina suffered injury in the indignity of being sorted on the basis of race with no good reason.” Aden noted that she “looks forward to a decision soon. There are congressional elections next year, and every election where our clients don’t have their rights respected is one election too many.”
In 2020, after voters of color turned out in historic numbers and had power-shifting impacts on the 2020 election results, 2021 saw a barrage of suppressive voting laws introduced in legislatures across the country — a bombardment that continues to this day, on top of discriminatory redistricting processes and resultant maps. Indeed, in addition to South Carolina, Alabama and Louisiana have both seen fights over fair representation in the redistricting process — fights in which LDF has also played a critical role. As political parties vie for control of Congress that perpetually sits on a razor-thin margin, Black voters have become political capital for lawmakers — seen as both a threat and expendable. Black political power and organizing is capable of transforming elections, democracy, and power structures as we know them. And for some, this is a frightening prospect that must be stopped.
Moreover, coupled with these Black voter suppression measures are efforts to deny the accurate, truthful teaching of American history and efforts to demonize diversity, equity, and inclusion. And while these things may seem harmful on their own but not directly connected, they are actually fundamentally entangled — and have a deeply pernicious impact. These tactics are all part of a larger attempt to halt crucial progress the country has made and foster deep regressions in racial justice and equality, widening instead of helping close the balance of power between historically marginalized groups and those who have benefitted from others’ marginalization.
Undermining Black political power, like South Carolina officials are seeking to do through their efforts highlighted in Alexander v. South Carolina State Conference of the NAACP, is yet another attempt to tip this country toward regression. But LDF and other civil rights and grassroots organizations aren’t scared of a challenge. They’ve been up against many challenges before and come out victorious. This case’s legal team comes to this work emboldened by the organization’s legacy of remaining steadfast when protecting and advancing equal opportunity and dignity for Black people in this country, standing on the shoulders of their powerful predecessors who fought for racial justice at the height of the civil rights movement.
Just like they were in the 1950s and 1960s, the relentless attacks that civil rights groups must endure are dogged. But in the long arc toward justice, we’re seeing gains and transformations. And, as we await a decision in this case in spring 2024, LDF’s unwavering conviction when it comes to creating an equal, just, and diverse democracy will serve as a lodestar.
First filed in December 2021, Alexander v. South Carolina NAACP is a seminal case challenging South Carolina’s racially gerrymandered redistricting map.
LDF has closely monitored the redistricting process in key states to ensure that maps are drawn fairly and do not disenfranchise Black voters. LDF has filed lawsuits challenging discriminatory maps in several states.
LDF Original Content
Understanding the role of race the redistricting process as a means of ensuring equitable representation and political power is critical.
LDF Original Content
LDF returned to the Supreme Court to successfully defend Alabama voters challenging the state’s discriminatory congressional map.
We’ve compiled answers to frequently asked questions about Allen v. Milligan and its impact on voting rights and redistricting.
LDF, MALDEF, and AAJC published a guide to the redistricting process and how communities can get involved and advocate for fair maps.