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Fate of SC's 1st District in the hands of U.S. Supreme Court

FILE - The setting sun illuminates the Supreme Court building on Capitol Hill in Washington, Jan. 10, 2023.
Patrick Semansky
FILE - The setting sun illuminates the Supreme Court building on Capitol Hill in Washington, Jan. 10, 2023.

The nation's highest court will now decide if South Carolina's 1st Congressional District was racially gerrymandered and must be redrawn or if a lower court got it wrong.

Black and white South Carolinians rallied together on the steps of the U.S. Supreme court Wednesday demanding equal protection in voting rights.

“Voting is power,” they chanted. “Black power is voting.”

Inside, an attorney for the state’s Republican-controlled legislature argued lawmakers did not intentionally dilute the power of Black voters when they redrew the 1st Congressional District following the 2020 census.

“Mr. Chief Justice, may it please the court, district one is not a racial gerrymander,” attorney John Gore said.

Gore tried to convince the justices the state did not target Black voters when it attempted to create a stronger Republican district.

“The general assembly had no reason to and did not use a racial target,” Gore said. “It used political data to pursue its political goals.”

But earlier this year, three federal judges decided after eight days of testimony that state lawmakers did use race to meet their goal. Specifically, they moved more than 30,000 Black voters from what has historically been the heart of the coastal district, Charleston County. The Black voters were shifted to the 6th District, which is represented by the state’s only Black Congressman, Jim Clyburn.

The NAACP and a Black voter from Hilton Head sued and in January won. But lawmakers insist the lower court erred and want the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the decision.

Conservative justices, like Chief Justice John Roberts, seemed to the side with the state Wednesday, saying the lower court’s ruling was based on circumstantial evidence. In fact, Roberts had a long line of questioning for the attorney who represented the plaintiffs in that federal lawsuit.

“With no direct evidence, with no alternative map, with no odd-shaped districts which we often get in gerrymandering cases and with a wealth of political data that you’re suggesting your friends on the other side would ignore in favor of racial data?”

Attorney Leah Aden quickly responded.

“If you’re asking whether there’s direct evidence the legislature admitted in the 21st century that they sorted voters on the basis of race as a means to achieve their political goal, no we did not have that.”

Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson questioned if such evidence would even exist.

“How could there be direct evidence really in this kind of case?”

And Justice Elena Kagan defended the plaintiffs arguing an alternative map was not needed to prove racial gerrymandering. They provided expert witnesses.

“They show that Black Democrats are excluded from district one at a far greater percentage than white democrats are,” Justice Kagan said.

Dr. Claire Wofford has been following the case closely. The Associate Professor of Political Science at the College of Charleston says it’s complicated.

“The court has never definitely said how one shows whether or not race was the predominant motivation or party was the motivation,” said Dr. Wofford. “Particularly when race and party are so correlated.”

Wofford says the liberal leaning justices appeared to give the lower court greater deference in determining the case, while the conservative justices seemed bothered by what they saw as methodological flaws.

But she found Chief Justice Roberts comments especially telling.

“He said that a finding for the voters' case would require the court to make new law, make new jurisprudence,” says Wofford. “And that phrase really struck me as a bad sign for the voters case.”

Wofford says the high court’s decision, either way, could have huge implications. If the justices rule in favor of those who sued, there will likely be more challenges to partisan gerrymanders.

But if the court rules in favor of the state, she says state legislatures are going have a lot more lead way, " to draw districts as they see fit even if that drawing process involves treating Black and white voters differently."

No word on when the justices will rule. But both sides hope it’s in time for the 2024 elections when control of the U.S. House of Representatives could be at stake.


Victoria Hansen is our Lowcountry connection covering the Charleston community, a city she knows well. She grew up in newspaper newsrooms and has worked as a broadcast journalist for more than 20 years. Her first reporting job brought her to Charleston where she covered local and national stories like the Susan Smith murder trial and the arrival of the Citadel’s first female cadet.