Opinion

Alabama Cherishes Its History of Defying the Federal Courts

Most other states would be ashamed of the tongue lashing issued against the government of Alabama on Tuesday by a trio of federal judges, all of whom were clearly furious that the state ignored their order to create a second majority-Black congressional district.

“We are deeply troubled,” the judges wrote, in an opinion laced with palpable anger, that the state drew a voting map that doesn’t do what the court previously ordered. “We are disturbed,” they wrote, that the Alabama Legislature didn’t even try to comply with a requirement that even the U.S. Supreme Court said was necessary. “We are struck,” they wrote, by the unprecedented nature of the defiance.

But Alabama’s leaders knew exactly what they were doing. They all but asked for the decision, as a way to show that no judge, court or other arm of the federal government could push them around. And far from being ashamed, state officials remained obstinate after the decision was issued. The state attorney general’s office issued a statement saying Alabama was right all along, that the court’s decision was disappointing and that the state planned to appeal to the Supreme Court.

In doing so, Alabama illustrated how contempt for the law — not to mention for equal representation and basic fairness — is an animating value in whole swaths of America. There are days when it feels as if defiance is defining large parts of the country, as represented by so many politicians who feel comfortable only when they are resisting someone else’s agenda rather than coming up with their own.

The legal problem with Alabama’s strategy is that the Supreme Court already ruled on the matter. Just three months ago, in one of the surprises of its term, the court ruled that Alabama had violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — a supreme achievement of the civil rights era — by drawing a voting map that diluted the power of Black voters. A single district in which Black voters were in the majority was not enough, the high court said.

After that ruling was handed down, the lower court told the state legislature to abide by it and come up with a new map that had two majority-Black districts. But in July the legislature simply refused. Instead, it approved yet another map with only one such district. And its leaders made it clear they were proud of standing up to federal power.

“The Legislature knows our state, our people and our districts better than the federal courts or activist groups,” wrote Gov. Kay Ivey, who signed the map into law, “and I am pleased that they answered the call, remained focused and produced new districts ahead of the court deadline.” In one stroke, she not only flipped off the Roberts court but also ludicrously lumped it in with voting rights activists.

In a hearing last month, the three judges on the lower-court panel couldn’t quite believe it when Alabama came back with a map with only a single majority-Black district. “What I hear you saying is the State of Alabama deliberately disregarded our instruction,” said Judge Terry Moorer, writing for the Federal District Court for Northern Alabama, one of the three who announced on Tuesday that they would appoint a special master to draw the second district and simply impose it on the state in time for next year’s elections.

The judge’s description of intentional insolence was on the money. Alabama knew full well that it would lose this case and that a second majority-Black district would inevitably be created over its opposition. That would give Democrats a good chance to win two of the state’s seven congressional seats. But Republican lawmakers, who control the statehouse, didn’t want to be seen as the creators of the district. They didn’t want to appear that they were knuckling under to the power of the federal government. They wanted the court to do it, and they wanted the public to understand that it was the court’s doing.

With their actions, they are evoking an image of defiance from 1954, when state leaders openly said they would ignore the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision and continue segregating Black and white children in Alabama’s public schools. The state, along with others in the South, spent years resisting the mandate to end separate schools, and in 1963, Gov. George Wallace notoriously promised “segregation forever,” bowing to reality only when federal troops made him do so. A series of court rulings eventually integrated the public schools, but many white parents responded by pulling their children out of those schools and enrolling them in private academies.

That tradition clearly lives on in the halls of state in Montgomery. When it comes to accepting the mandates of racial justice, Alabama’s leaders will hold out as long as they can and only grudgingly acknowledge reality when it is imposed on them. And no mandates are worse than those from the federal courts, the traditional enemy of the state’s regressive inclinations.

“The federal court does what it always does to Alabama: forces us to the right thing,” Chris England, a Black state representative from Tuscaloosa, said a few weeks ago. “Courts always have to come in and save us from ourselves.” Maybe the state attorney general, Steve Marshall, thinks the Supreme Court will reverse its decision from July, but more likely, he just wants to play out the charade a little longer.

The federal law enforcement system has a particularly bad reputation in the state now that it has twice indicted Donald Trump, who won Alabama with 62 percent of the vote in 2020 and who has persuaded many Republicans that Democrats manipulate federal judges and prosecutors for their own corrupt purposes. After the map ruling was issued on Tuesday, the speaker of the Alabama House, Nathaniel Ledbetter, said the whole thing was part of a Democratic plot to win back the House of Representatives in 2024, led by Barack Obama and his attorney general Eric Holder. (Those two were probably not chosen at random.)

“It’s a way for the Democrats to try to take over the House without a vote being cast,” Mr. Ledbetter said on a talk radio show run by host who has been an editor at Breitbart News.

It’s slightly inconvenient for this theory that two of the three judges who signed Tuesday’s opinion were appointed by Mr. Trump. But little things like facts and law and justice just get in the way when you’re invoking a well-worn conspiracy theory to drive Alabama into the past.

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