WASHINGTON — In Supreme Court arguments Tuesday, members of the court’s conservative majority seemed to be searching for a narrow way to uphold a congressional map drawn by Alabama lawmakers that a lower court had said diluted the power of Black voters, violating the Voting Rights Act.

Based on their questioning, which was mostly subdued and limited, the court’s conservatives seemed likely to reject some of the state’s most aggressive arguments, which would impose profound new restrictions on how the 1965 act applies in redistricting cases.

Edmund G. LaCour Jr., Alabama’s solicitor general, argued, in essence, that the law was meant to cover only intentional discrimination on the basis of race, a position that was not well received by some of the court’s conservatives.

“My understanding of our cases is that you don’t have to show intent,” Chief Justice John Roberts said.

Justice Amy Coney Barrett agreed. “Our precedent and the statute itself says that you don’t have to show discriminatory intent, so put that aside,” she said.

Justice Samuel Alito, the most active participant among the court’s conservatives, indicated that LaCour might have gone too far. “You have made a number of arguments, some of them quite far-reaching,” Alito said, adding that he would focus on whether the voting district at issue was “reasonably configured.”


Justice Clarence Thomas said very little, and Justice Neil Gorsuch said nothing at all. Roberts, Barrett and Justice Brett Kavanaugh asked mainly neutral questions.

“If one just listened to the oral argument, one might think that these justices are up for grabs in this case,” Richard L. Hasen, a law professor at UCLA, said of those three justices. But he cautioned that questioning can be misleading and that the court may well rework the leading precedent to make it much harder to challenge voting maps.

The court’s three liberal members pushed hard to curb potential damage to the law, which Justice Elena Kagan called “one of the great achievements of American democracy.” She added that “in recent years, this statute has not fared well in this court,” a reference to decisions in 2013 and 2021 that undercut the law’s effectiveness in protecting minority voters.

The first decision, Shelby County v. Holder, effectively struck down Section 5 of the law, which required prior federal approval of changes to voting procedures in parts of the country with a history of racial and other discrimination. But that ruling, Kagan said, assured the public that Section 2 of the law would remain in place to protect voting rights by allowing litigation after the fact.

The second decision, Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee, she said, then limited the ability of minority groups to challenge voting restrictions but said vote dilution cases, like the one argued Tuesday, were “really what Section 2 is about.”

“And you’re asking us essentially to cut back substantially on our 40 years of precedent and to make this, too, extremely difficult to prevail on,” she told LaCour.


Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson said the law had to be understood in the context of the history of the 14th Amendment, adopted after the Civil War, which was meant to protect formerly enslaved Black people. “That’s not a race-neutral or race-blind idea,” she said.

The case, Merrill v. Milligan, came from Alabama, which has seven congressional districts. The voting age population in the state is about 27% Black.

In November 2021, Alabama’s Legislature, which is controlled by Republicans, redrew the congressional map to take account of the 2020 census. It maintained a single district in which Black voters make up a majority.

That district has long elected a Democrat, while the state’s other six districts are represented by Republicans.

After Black voters and advocacy groups challenged the map under the Voting Rights Act, a unanimous three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court in Birmingham, Alabama, ruled that the Legislature should have fashioned a second district “in which Black voters either comprise a voting age majority or something quite close to it.”

The unsigned decision was joined by Judge Stanley Marcus, who ordinarily sits on the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in Atlanta, and was appointed by President Bill Clinton; and by Judges Anna M. Manasco and Terry F. Moorer, both appointed by President Donald Trump.


The panel found that voting in the state is racially polarized and that it would be possible to draw “a second reasonably configured district” to allow Black voters to elect their favored candidates.

In February, the Supreme Court temporarily blocked the lower court’s ruling by a 5-4 vote, ensuring that this fall’s election would take place using the Legislature’s map, the one with a single district in which Black voters were in the majority.

The justices also agreed to hear an appeal of the ruling on its merits, which is what was argued Tuesday.

In dissenting from the February order, Roberts said the lower court had “properly applied existing law in an extensive opinion with no apparent errors for our correction.”

Still, he wrote, the Supreme Court’s precedents “have engendered considerable disagreement and uncertainty regarding the nature and contours of a vote dilution claim.”

Elizabeth B. Prelogar, the U.S. solicitor general, arguing in support of the challengers, said Alabama was asking for extreme changes.


“Under the state’s approach,” she said, “nothing would stop Alabama and many other states from dismantling their existing majority-minority districts, leaving Black voters and entire swaths of the country with no ability to elect their preferred representatives.”

LaCour, the state’s solicitor general, offered a different vision of the goal of the act.

“The purpose of the Voting Rights Act is to prevent discrimination and to foster our transformation to a society that is no longer fixated on race,” he said, “but plaintiffs would transform that statute into one that requires racial discrimination in districting and carries us further from the goal of a political system in which race no longer matters.”