June 2023 Legislative Update

Welcome Back to our Legislative Update!

As summer rolls in across the South, southern legislatures have been winding down after many days of heated debate on policy issues ranging from the elimination of diversity, equity, and inclusion bills at state-funded institutions of higher learning to providing free menstrual products in public school systems and reforms across a wide range of laws related to the criminal legal system. As of the publication of this update, 12 of the 13 Southern state legislative bodies have adjourned their regular sessions for 2023 with North Carolina scheduled to into the summer. As we’ve mentioned before, there are several issues and policy decisions that emerged from these legislative sessions and we’re working on and looking forward to providing a more comprehensive summary later this year after the adjournment of all 13 state sessions.

In this month’s update, we’ll provide an update on recent actions of the U.S. Supreme Court including decisions that can have a profound and positive effect on voting rights in the South, while another effectively operates as a refusal to acknowledge the racist history of systemic oppression of African Americans and other minority groups in this country. We conclude the update by celebrating legislative wins that emerged from the 2023 Southern legislative sessions that have adjourned as of the publication of this update.

Three Steps Forward, But Two Steps Back

The Supreme Court’s Disassembling of Affirmative Action

In the same week that we celebrated decisive victories for progress handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court related to voting (see below), we were disheartened later in the week by actions of that same court that strike down the consideration of race in college admissions and that decision’s blatant disregard and dilution of the racist history of this country and its systems, including higher education.

The case, Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. President and Fellows of Harvard College, asked the court to decide whether it was discriminatory to consider race in the college admissions process. Students from both Harvard University and the University of North Carolina claimed that the universities discriminated against them as white and Asian Americans in their admissions processes in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution. The majority opinion states that both programs “lack sufficiently focused and measurable objectives warranting the use of race, unavoidably employ race in a negative manner, involve racial stereotyping, and lack meaningful end points.”

Considering the ongoing and persistent attempts to avoid confronting racism by blowing dog whistles about critical race theory, disregarding the narratives and perspectives of marginalized communities in shaping our understanding of history, and now impeding upon the ability of students of color to achieve their educational aspirations, EPU wants to reiterate its unwavering dedication to advancing racial equity. Many often confuse equity and equality. Although both promote fairness, equality achieves fairness through treating everyone the same regardless of need, while equity achieves this through treating people differently dependent on need. Equality means each individual or group is given the same resources or opportunities. Equity recognizes that each person has different circumstances and allocates the exact resources and opportunities needed to reach an equal outcome.

EPU firmly believes that our nation has made progress on race but that we continue to allow ourselves to be divided by anger, hate, and fear. Operating in this manner costs us all deeply. We have always believed in addressing racism head-on. Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, in her dissent, said: “The best that can be said of the majority’s perspective is that it proceeds (ostrich-like) from the hope that preventing consideration of race will end racism” (emphasis added). Believing that this is possible is dangerous. Preventing the consideration of race will not end racism; in fact, it has the potential of exacerbating it and taking us back to a posture that it has taken over a century to dismantle.

In the dissent, Justice Jackson also so poignantly professed that “[h]istory speaks. In some form, it can be heard forever.” EPU will continue to speak loudly and assuredly over these vestiges of oppression and division to promote truth telling, courageous change, and racial healing in our communities. We look forward to working with our partners and stakeholders to ensure that this decision does not halt or undo the progress that has been made to create a more just, equitable, and inclusive South.

Revisiting Redistricting – Recent Supreme Court Actions on Voting

Though not directly related to legislation from the 2023 legislative sessions, recent news from the U.S. Supreme Court warranted discussion and applause in this legislative update. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court issued an important decision in an Alabama case involving racially discriminatory congressional maps that has the potential to have a ripple effect on cases from other states challenging their racially discriminatory maps redrawn after the 2020 Census. These landmark decisions mark a significant victory in the ongoing battle for equal representation and justice, offering hope for a bright and more inclusive South.

The issue of racially discriminatory congressional maps has plagued our nation for far too long, particularly in the South, where historical and systemic racism has had a profound and perpetual impact. These maps have been used as a tool to dilute the voting power of minority communities, perpetuating an unequal and unjust political landscape. However, the Supreme Court’s recent decision confirmed a message that has been spread for years: the era of systemic racism in our electoral processes cannot be allowed to persist

In the Alabama case Allen v. Milligan, the Court ruled that Alabama’s recently-redrawn congressional map violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA)when the state’s congressional district lines were drawn with the intention of minimizing African American voting strength. Those maps created one rather than two majority-Black districts out of Alabama’s seven congressional districts, even though more than 27% of the state’s voting-age population is Black. In the decision, the court also affirmed that race can be considered in the redistricting process to provide equal opportunities to communities of color and ensure that they are not “packed and cracked” in a way that impermissibly weakens their voting strength in violation of Section 2 of the VRA.

Court watchers and voting rights advocates were rejuvenated by the court’s decision in Allen, as the consequence of that ruling ensured movement in cases from across the country that had previously been stalled until that case was decided. The case most closely related to Allen was Ardoin v. Robinson, requesting that the Supreme Court stay a federal court order requiring the Louisiana legislature to redraw the state’s congressional voting map to create two majority-minority districts out of Louisiana’s six congressional districts. It must be noted that Louisiana’s Black population is even greater than Alabama’s at 30%. Ardoin was paused by the Supreme Court in June 2022 pending a decision in the Allen case. Just hours after the Allen decision was announced, a letter was sent to the Supreme Court by Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry seeking to distinguish the cases from each other.

The attempt at distinction was ineffective as the court removed the stay on Monday, June 26, 2023 in Ardoin, unblocking the lower court order and raising the chance that Louisiana will redraw its congressional maps to include a second majority-Black district. EPU’s very own Davante Lewis, a member of Cohort 4 of our Unum Fellows and a Public Service Commissioner in Louisiana, was a named plaintiff in the Ardoin case. In response to the removal of the stay, Lewis said in a Tweet on Monday, “I sued the state of Louisiana for what I knew was a racist, unfair congressional map. I’m pleased to see the SCOTUS side on justice and let our case prevail. It is time for Louisiana to see and hear Black people in this state.”

In yet another major voting rights decision, the Supreme Court rejected the “independent state legislature theory” put forth by legislators from North Carolina and held that the North Carolina Supreme Court did not violate the Constitution when it set aside a congressional map in that state that was drawn to give Republicans 10 out of 14 seats congressional seats for North Carolina.

These Supreme Court actions come at a critical time as the nation and the South continue to grapple with complex political and social issues. They are not just about redrawing lines on maps. They are about challenging the structural injustices that have hindered progress for decades. By dismantling unfairly drawn maps, the Supreme Court has taken decisive steps toward fostering a more inclusive democracy where the voices of marginalized communities can be heard, valued, and represented.

As we celebrate these victories for fair representation, it is important to recognize that our work toward a more equitable democracy is far from over. Efforts to combat discriminatory maps and political gerrymandering and promote impartial redistricting must continue to ensure the voice of every American is heard and valued. We applaud the Supreme Court for these recent decisions that demonstrate a commitment to the principles of fairness and equal representation and take significant steps toward protecting the integrity of our democratic institutions.

2023 Wins for Equity

Here are a few examples of progressive and equity-positive wins from 12 Southern states that have adjourned their 2023 sessions. Legislation that seeks to close gaps and increase opportunities for historically marginalized and disadvantaged communities not only serves to improve those communities but the South as a whole. The policies highlighted below play a pivotal role in advancing racial equity in the South and serve as a shining example for the rest of the United States to follow. By enacting laws that promote fairness, justice, access, and inclusivity, the South can lead the nation in dismantling systemic racism and creating a more just and fair society.

These legislative measures are powerful tools for addressing the historic and ongoing disparities faced by marginalized communities in the South. By implementing policies that specifically target and alleviate the unique challenges faced by many, lawmakers can begin the monumental task of rectifying the systemic inequities that have plagued our society for too long.

An equitable South is one where access to things such as quality education, healthcare, housing, and employment is not determined by the color or one’s skin or socioeconomic status. It is a region where the criminal legal system operates without bias, where voting rights are protected and expanded, and where economic opportunities are accessible to all. Through taking additional steps such as these, the South can work towards leveling the playing field a bit more and ensuring that every individual, regardless of background, has an equal chance at success and fulfillment.

A more extensive list of bills in each state that are being tracked by EPU can be found by clicking on the according state on the map below. The reports will be updated as new measures may be added and identified by EPU.

We look forward to providing our next update to you in August 2023!