The Supreme Court threw out two North Carolina congressional district maps Monday, ruling the state legislature had engaged in unconstitutional racial gerrymandering in drawing district lines.
The two districts in question, the 1st and 12th congressional districts, each contain a significant population of black voters. Democrats and civil rights groups charged the GOP-led legislature had packed minority voters into these districts to dilute their influence statewide.
Justice Elena Kagan wrote the opinion for a five-justice majority, joined by Justices Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and Sonia Sotomayor. Justice Samuel Alito wrote an opinion concurring and dissenting in part joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Anthony Kennedy. The full court agreed the first district should be struck down, but split 5-3 with respect to the second district.
The Court’s ruling spends considerable time recounting the factual findings of the lower courts that have heard the case, citing testimony given by state legislators and redistricting experts, augmented with relevant demographic statistics. Its review concluded that race was the predominant factor in drawing the two districts at issue.
“The Constitution entrusts states with the job of designing congressional districts,” Kagan wrote. “But it also imposes an important constraint: a state may not use race as the predominant factor in drawing district lines unless it has a compelling reason.”
The Voting Rights Acts (VRA) allows states to use race as a factor when drawing district lines so as to ensure adequate representation of minorities in legislative bodies. In this case, the Court concluded that the state legislature made no effort to comply with VRA, foreclosing the possibility that North Carolina could use it as a defense.
The state argued that it relied on partisan affiliation, not race, in drawing the district lines. Federal courts have long accepted that factors like party affiliation or protecting incumbents are legitimate redistricting criteria on which state legislatures may rely. Challengers countered that race and partisan affiliation are often synonymous in the American South. Kagan largely, if subtly, vindicated that argument in her opinion for the Court.
“This decision by Justice Kagan is a major victory for voting rights plaintiffs, who have succeeded in turning the racial gerrymandering cause of action into an effective tool to go after partisan gerrymanders in Southern states,” professor Rick Hasen, an election law expert at UC Irvine School of Law wrote on his Election Law Blog. “Justice Kagan, in a couple of footnotes (footnotes 1 and 7), attempts to solve the race or party problem by moving the Court much closer to the position of treating race and party as proxies for one another in the American South.”
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 VRA requires states to consider race in redistricting if they have large minority populations.
What’s more, states can also face trouble no matter what solution they reach — if a state spreads minority voters out over several districts, they could be said to be diluting the influence of minority votes and the prospect of minority representation in legislative bodies. Should they establish minority-majority districts across the state, they’re accused of compacting minority populations into a handful of districts to reduce their influence in other jurisdictions.
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