Linda Greenhouse in The Atlantic:
Back in February, in a 5–4 vote, the Court’s conservative majority temporarily blocked the district court’s order; the majority didn’t even deign to issue an opinion explaining its reasoning. The justices’ audacious move freed Alabama to hold November’s congressional elections in districts that the lower court had declared invalid. This went too far even for one of the Voting Rights Act’s best-known critics, Chief Justice John Roberts, who dissented. To resurrect a pungent phrase, his colleagues out-segged him. But it would be a mistake to read his dissent as a sign that he has abandoned a project that has obsessed him since his days as a young lawyer in the Reagan Justice Department.
The most likely explanation for his dissent was that he flinched at the optics: Alabama’s request for a stay had arrived on the Court’s “shadow docket.” Every court maintains an emergency docket to handle matters that can’t wait for a full hearing. But during the Trump years, the Supreme Court exploited this device to hand victories to the president without a full briefing, public argument, or even advance notice.
Although Alabama is 27 percent Black, only one of its seven congressional districts—the one that includes Birmingham—has a Black majority, despite large Black populations concentrated in Mobile and in the “Black Belt” counties that stretch across the state. It may have struck the chief justice that using the shadow docket to preserve this status quo in defiance of the lower court’s decision was an unappealing step, and an unnecessary one at that.
When the justices decide the case, Merrill v. Milligan, this term, they will be free not only to overturn the lower court’s decision, but to rewrite the rules governing how the Voting Rights Act applies to similar cases anywhere in the country. Roberts conceded in his dissent that the district court had correctly followed precedent. He also made it clear that, in his view, the precedent is overdue for revision. As we saw in June, overturning precedent is no obstacle to a majority ready and willing to use its power to get what it wants.