The Supreme Court sided with Democrats and civil rights groups in a major redistricting case on Wednesday.
The opinion for the court was written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan. Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito agreed with the result but dissented from certain parts of Kennedy’s opinion.
The case concerned 12 state legislative districts drawn by the GOP-controlled legislature in Virginia, in connection with the redistricting process begun after the 2010 census. The legislature purposefully drew 12 districts with a Black Voting Age Population (BVAP) of 55 percent to ensure minority representation in the legislature.
Some states complain that they face something of a catch-22 when they must redraw congressional and state legislative districts every 10 years. On the one hand, the courts forbid states from making race the predominate factor during the redistricting process. Conversely, the Voting Rights Act (VRA) requires states to consider race in redistricting if they have large minority populations. In this case, the justices had to decide how courts should determine if race “predominated” in the redistricting process.
A lower court concluded that 11 of the 12 districts challenged in this case had not been racially gerrymandered, but that the 12th district had been drawn on the basis of race. The districts, they reasoned, corresponded to traditional redistricting criteria like compactness and equal population. Therefore, race could not have been the primary factor on which the legislators relied.
The justices concluded that the lower court used incorrect standards in assessing whether race was the primary factor motivating the redistricting. The justices said the courts must determine if race was the predominate factor in drawing district maps in reality, instead of measuring district maps against traditional redistricting criteria the legislature could have used.
“By deploying those factors in various combinations and permutations, a state could construct a plethora of potential maps that look consistent with traditional, race-neutral principles,” Kennedy wrote. “But if race for its own sake is the overriding reason for choosing one map over others, race still may predominate.”
The case will now return to the trial court for further proceedings.
Marc Elias, a veteran Democratic elections lawyer who argued the case for the plaintiffs, heralded the ruling as a major civil rights victory which exposes Republican-drawn maps across the country to legal challenges.
Writing at his Election Law Blog, professor Rick Hasen of UC Irvine School of Law concluded the opinion offers some guidance for future cases, but is not a major contribution to the Court’s redistricting jurisprudence.
“The opinion is an important technical case about how to apply the standards in racial gerrymandering cases, but it breaks little new ground, and this case itself is likely to be back up to the Supreme Court for further review,” he writes. “It is more of a punt than a major decision.”
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