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Federal Panel Rules South Carolina Congressional District Is Illegal Gerrymander

WASHINGTON — South Carolina’s First Congressional District is an unconstitutional racial gerrymander, and its boundaries must be redrawn before future elections are held, a panel of three federal judges unanimously ruled on Friday.

But the judges rejected arguments that two more of the state’s seven House districts were also illegally gerrymandered, saying voting-rights advocates had failed to show that their boundaries were predominantly drawn to dilute Black voting power.

The South Carolina Conference of the N.A.A.C.P. sued the Republican-dominated State Legislature after lawmakers approved a new congressional map last January. The organization claimed in the suit that the map’s configurations of the First, Second and Fifth Districts had illegally violated Black voters’ rights under the 14th and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

But as the trial wound down in late November, the judges focused on the First District, which hugs the Carolina coast from Charleston, the state’s largest city, to Hilton Head. Democrats and Republicans had traded control of the House seat in the 2018 and 2020 elections, with the outcome decided by less than a percentage point each time.

The House map approved in January moved 62 percent of the Black voters in Charleston County from the First District into the Sixth District, a seat that Representative Jim Clyburn, a Black Democrat, has held for 30 years.

The shift helped make the new first District a Republican bastion. In November, Representative Nancy Mace, a Republican incumbent, won re-election by 14 percentage points.

Republican legislators freely acknowledged in court testimony that they had redrawn the First District for partisan gain. But they said they had deliberately avoided looking at the racial breakdown of the new map, to insulate themselves from charges of bias, a defense that Republicans have increasingly embraced in other redistricting battles.

In the panel’s opinion on Friday, the three judges noted that the mapmaker hired by the Legislature had testified that he had tried to make as few changes as possible in drawing maps for the state’s other six House seats. But he said he had abandoned that approach in redrawing the First District, and instead made “dramatic changes” and “created tremendous disparity” in Charleston County.

“The movement of over 30,000 African Americans in a single county from Congressional District No. 1 to Congressional District No. 6 created a stark racial gerrymander of Charleston County,” the judges wrote. They said the move violated Black voters’ guarantee of equal protection of the laws under the 14th Amendment, as well as the 15th Amendment’s prohibition against abridging the right to vote on account of race.

One of the three judges, District Judge Richard Gergel, who was named to the bench by President Barack Obama, said during the trial that such a large shift of Black voters could only have been done by design.

“If you see a turtle on top of a fence post, you know someone put it there,” he said. “This is not a coincidence.”

The two other judges who joined the ruling, District Judge Mary Geiger Lewis and Circuit Judge Toby J. Heytens, were nominated by Presidents Obama and Biden, respectively.

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