Federal three-judge panel rules South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District unconstitutional

On January 6, 2023, a federal three-judge panel ruled that South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District was unconstitutional and enjoined the state from conducting future elections using its district boundaries. The panel’s opinion said, “The Court finds that race was the predominant factor motivating the General Assembly’s adoption of Congressional District No. 1… Plaintiffs’ right to be free from an unlawful racial gerrymander under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment has been violated. Defendants have made no showing that they had a compelling state interest in the use of race in the design of Congressional District No. 1 and thus cannot survive a strict scrutiny review.”

The panels’ ruling ordered the General Assembly to submit a remedial map for its review by March 31, 2023. It said, “the Court hereby enjoins the conducting of an election under congressional District No. 1 until a constitutionally valid apportionment plan is approved by this Court.”

Caitlin Byrd of the Post and Courier reported that South Carolina House Speaker Murrell Smith (R) expected lawmakers to appeal the ruling. After the court’s order, Smith said, “I maintain that the House drew maps without racial bias and in the best interest of all the people of this state.”

The panel’s’ three judges were 4th Circuit Appeals Court Justice Toby Heytens—who President Joe Biden (D) appointed—and district court judges Mary Geiger Lewis and Richard Mark Gergel—who President Barack Obama (D) appointed.

The three-judge panel also determined that the state’s 2nd and 5th Congressional District boundaries were constitutional and dismissed the plaintiffs’ claims regarding those, saying, “Plaintiffs have failed to carry their burden to prove that race was the predominant factor in the design of Congressional District Nos. 2 and 5.”

On February 10, 2022, the South Carolina State Conference of the NAACP and a South Carolina voter had filed an amended complaint in their lawsuit against State Senate President Thomas Alexander (R), four other state legislators, and the members of the South Carolina State Election Commission challenging the constitutionality of the state’s congressional district boundaries. The complaint argued that South Carolina’s enacted congressional map “discriminates on the basis of race by appearing to preserve the ability of Black voters to elect in Congressional District 6 (“CD”) while working adeptly to deny the ability of Black voters to elect or even influence elections in any of the other six congressional districts.

South Carolina enacted new congressional district maps on January 26, 2022, when Gov. Henry McMaster (R) signed a proposal approved by the South Carolina House and Senate into law. Both state legislative chambers approved the congressional map strictly along party lines, with Republicans supporting the proposal and Democrats opposing it.