Leah Aden The Woman Who Argued South Carolina’s Case Before The Supreme Court

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One side alleges “textbook” gerrymandering; the other says it’s about politics, not race.
Meet the Black woman who argued South Carolina's redistricting case before the Supreme Court

When it comes to South Carolina’s redistricting case, Leah Aden of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund says “I’ve lived with this case from the ground up.”NBC News / Legal Defense Fun

During Leah Aden’s first oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court in a redistricting case that critics have branded “textbook” racial gerrymandering, several justices peppered the attorney with rapid-fire, probing questions about South Carolina’s contested congressional map.

Yet Aden, senior counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, or LDF, didn’t flinch.

“I’ve always wanted to do impact work,” said Aden, who argued Alexander v. South Carolina State Conference of the NAACP, a case whose outcome will determine South Carolina’s congressional map and could have larger implications on the 2024 election. “I’ve lived with this case from the ground up.”

The new map passed by South Carolina’s General Assembly was signed into law by the state’s governor in January 2022. Civil rights advocates quickly challenged the map  as a racial gerrymander allegedly designed with a discriminatory purpose under the 14th and 15th amendments of the U.S. Constitution.

In January 2023, the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina unanimously found that the South Carolina legislature sought to diminish Black voting power, purportedly by shuffling thousands of Black Charlestonians from District 1, where Republican Rep. Nancy Mace holds the seat, to District 6, long represented by Rep. James Clyburn, a top Democrat and the state’s lone Black congressman.

In May, South Carolina’s legislature, led by state Senate President Thomas Alexander, appealed the lower court’s decision, bringing the case to the Supreme Court.

In a brief to the court, the LDF argued that redrawing the map could have been accomplished more equitably. Instead, it said, the defendants “moved almost 53,000 people into the already overpopulated CD1, and then another 140,000 people out. In doing so, Defendants ‘bleached’ Charleston County of 62% of its Black residents, more than 30,000 people, removing every precinct but one with more than 1,000 Black voters.”

Appearing before the high court earlier this month, Aden reiterated the lower court’s finding of “stark racial gerrymandering.”

The South Carolina lawmakers, she argued, were “consistently looking at race because they had an expectation that race was a predictor of how political parties would perform.”

“In light of the total record, it reflects that there was a racial target, it reflects that there was a significant sorting of Black people, it reflects unrebutted expert evidence of race rather than party explaining the assignment of voters, it reflects a disregard of traditional redistricting principles — and all of that evidence in total is more than plausible, in the record, for using race as a means to harm individual plaintiffs,” she told the justices.

Citing case law, a brief from the defendants asserted that because redistricting “is primarily the duty and responsibility of the State,” federal courts must “exercise extraordinary caution in adjudicating claims that a State has drawn district lines on the basis of race.” The brief further expounded that “States must have discretion to exercise the political judgment necessary to balance competing interests,” including the “political considerations … inseparable from redistricting.”

Some of the Supreme Court’s conservatives, who hold a 6-3 majority, suggested during the two-hour proceedings that the plaintiffs may not have sufficient evidence that state lawmakers were focused on race in redrawing the map. Chief Justice John Roberts noted the “very, very difficult” standard of “disentangling” race and politics; while liberal Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson countered that the plaintiffs did not have to present a “smoking gun” to argue that race was the state’s focus when redrawing the map.

Following oral arguments, Aden spoke with NBC News.

The native of Washington, D.C., is among a small club of Black women “oralists” in the country, following in the footsteps of groundbreaking LDF lawyers such as Constance Baker Motley, who died in 2005, and Christina Swarns, who now heads the Innocence Project.

“I grew up understanding the legacy of Brown v. Board of Education. I am one of its beneficiaries,” Aden said, noting that she intentionally applied to Howard University School of Law because the historically Black institution was where Thurgood Marshall, who founded LDF and later integrated the Supreme Court, trained. “Education, that’s our equalizer,” said Aden, who was a teacher before entering law school.

A proud member of the LDF team, whose attorneys are presently litigating a series of voting rights lawsuits in states across the South, Aden said her work is informed by the belief that injustice is “an affront to our Constitution.”

The case was filed on behalf of the South Carolina State Conference of the NAACP and Taiwan Scott, a Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, resident and member of the historic Gullah Geechee community. In addition to the Legal Defense Fund, the plaintiffs are also represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of South Carolina, and the law firm Arnold & Porter.

“For too long, our state’s electoral process has silenced us and severely weakened the ability of our communities to be fully and fairly represented and accounted for,” Scott said at a news conference on the courthouse steps where people held signs and chanted. “South Carolina’s congressional map is the latest instance in our state’s long, painful history of racial discrimination that must be remedied.”

Brenda Murphy, president of the NAACP South Carolina State Conference, which is also a plaintiff, said earlier this year that enacting this map minimized the electoral power of Charleston’s Black voters.

“Black South Carolinians have endured the indignity of a racially gerrymandered and intentionally discriminatory congressional map,” Murphy said when the case was filed in August.

Adriel Cepeda Derieux, deputy director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, added: “This was a textbook racial gerrymander and discriminatory map, as the lower court recognized.”

Now the wait begins for all of the stakeholders. Aden told NBC News her team is “confident” that after a full review of the record, the Supreme Court will agree with the lower panel’s ruling.

While there is no word on when a decision will be rendered, a final congressional map will have to be in compliance with the court’s ruling. “This is not about a winner or loser,” Aden said, “but the meaningful consequences and policy implications that flow from it which impact people’s lives.”