Today the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that North Carolina lawmakers impermissibly relied on race as they re-drew the first and twelfth Congressional districts. The Court agreed on District One in a unanimous opinion authored by Justice Elena Kagan. For District Twelve, the Court was split 5-3, with Justices Alito and Kennedy along with Chief Justice Roberts dissenting.
“The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment prevents a State, in the absence of ‘sufficient justification,’ from ‘separating its citizens into different voting districts on the basis of race.’”
When a voter sues state officials for drawing such race-based lines, this Court’s decisions call for a two-step analysis. First, the plaintiff must prove that “race was the predominant factor motivating the legislature’s decision to place a significant number of voters within or without a particular district.” Second, if racial considerations did predominate, the State must prove that its race-based sorting of voters serves a “compelling interest” and is “narrowly tailored” to that end
The two majority-black congressional districts originated in the 2010 redistricting of North Carolina Congressional districts. In Congressional District One, the redistricting increased black voting age population from 48.6% to 52.7%. In Congressional District Twelve, the black voting age population grew from 43.8% to 50.7%.
In its defense, the state argued that party politics was the reason for drawing the lines as they did, and that race was not a factor. The redrawn lines benefitted Republican candidates in other districts. Justice Kagan used part of her opinion to explain that the Justices need not determine whether racial bias was present, only that the lower court did its job when it ruled it was:
Getting to the bottom of a dispute like this one poses special challenges for a trial court, which must make “‘a sensitive inquiry’ ”into all “ ‘circumstantial and direct evidence of intent’ ”to assess whether the plaintiffs have proved that race, not politics, drove a district’s lines.
This Court’s job is different—and generally easier. It affirms a trial court’s factual finding as to racial predominance so long as the finding is “plausible”; it reverses only when “left with the definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed.”
Justice Alito used his thirty-four-page dissent to break down the majority opinion and accuse them of, with respect to District 12, treating its own precedent “like a disposable household item—say, a paper plate or napkin—to be used once and then tossed in the trash.” He noted that race and party affiliation were closely related in the state, and criticized those who sued for not submitting a redistricting map of their own. The dissent said the Court’s own ruling in the previous gerrymandering case Cromartie made this failure to provide an alternative necessitate that the claims regarding District Twelve can not proceed.
Justice Gorsuch was not involved in this case.
Redistricting fights are likely to come even more frequently and be more contentious – as we reported last month – since Barack Obama and Eric Holder have determined them to be a path to Democrat electoral success.
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