Supreme Court Strikes Down Racial Gerrymandering in North Carolina

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Aug 8, 2017

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Supreme CourtThe Supreme Court dealt a blow to North Carolina’s voter redistricting by finding that the state improperly relied on racial demographics when segmenting the state into voting populations.  The decision punctuates a growing argument between Democrats and Republicans regarding the creation of voter districts, and comes as the GOP attempts to fight off accusations of relying on race-based gerrymandering to retain power in states with increasingly active minority voters who predominantly support Democrats.

North Carolina Accused of Racial Redistricting

Following a 2010 census, North Carolina redrew congressional voting districts across the state, including two, District 1 and District 12, which consistently voted Democrat.  Prior to the redistricting neither District 1 or 12 had a majority Black voting age population (BVAP), however, both districts consistently voted for candidates preferred by the minority Black community.  The Republican led committee on redistricting substantially increased the size of both districts by having them absorb communities which consisted predominantly of Black voters from nearby areas in Durham and Charlotte, raising the BVAP in District 1 from 48% to 52%, and in 12 from 43% to 50%.  Opponents of the redistricting argued that the Republican efforts were designed to condense Black democrats into two voting districts, which decreases the overall power of the Black vote state-wide.

Under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, it is illegal for a state to redraw voting districts using race as a predominant factor without sufficient justification.  Democrats challenged the redistricting of NC Districts 1 and 12 by arguing that the Republican led efforts were racially motivated gerrymandering in violation of both the Equal Protection Clause and the Voting Rights Act (VRA).  Opponents filed a lawsuit against the state of North Carolina, alleging that state voting officials intentionally clustered Black voters into two districts which already consistently voted in alignment with Black preferences in order to marginalize voting power from the minority community.

A lower federal court reviewed the redrawn lines, the history of Black and White voting in the challenged areas, and heard arguments from both sides before agreeing with the plaintiffs and finding that North Carolina engaged in impermissible racial gerrymandering.  State officials appealed the case to the Supreme Court.

Supreme Court Rules against North Carolina in Racial Gerrymandering Lawsuit

Republican lawmakers in North Carolina responded to the racial gerrymandering allegations by claiming that they designed the new voting district lines in District 1 in an effort to avoid other provisions of the VRA which prohibit diluting minority votes with an influx of White opponents.  Under their theory, North Carolina lawmakers redrew District 1 to add more Black voters who would allow the state’s minority community to have their fair say.  This type of racially motivated redistricting is permitted under the VRA, however, only under specific conditions, one of which being that the increase in minority voters is designed to counter a strong White opposition voting bloc which would otherwise have prevented the minority vote from being heard. 

The argument, which did not hold up in lower court, similarly failed to gain traction in the Supreme Court opinion because historically District 1 is a “cross-over” district where the racial majority votes consistent with interests of the racial minority — in this case the White bloc in District 1 voted for candidates preferred by the Black community (Democrats).  North Carolina Republicans, then, could not be in compliance with the sections of the VRA which prohibited dilution of the Black vote because District 1 would not have neutralized the minority voice due to the strong presence of Democrats.  All 8 Justices who were on the bench at the time of oral arguments (Justice Gorsuch did not contribute to this decision) supported the finding of impermissible racial gerrymandering in District 1.

In response to the allegations for redrawing the lines of District 12, Republicans denied race was a factor, however, in a 5-3 split decision (Justice Thomas joined the Court’s 4 liberal Justices), SCOTUS found the lower court used sufficient evidence to determine racial gerrymandering took place.  Unlike District 1, District 12 did not need to be changed, and the additions to the district created an odd shaped voting area which reached out to include predominantly Black communities.  Further, testimony from experts who worked on and evaluated the redistricting suggested race came into play in the decision to redraw the area.  Justices Alito, Kennedy, and Roberts dissented from finding improper racial gerrymandering in District 12.

Supreme Court Cracks Down on Racial Gerrymandering

The ruling against North Carolina is the latest in a string of decisions which have found improper racial gerrymandering in GOP-led states including Virginia, Alabama, and elsewhere in North Carolina.  The court rulings have been welcomed by Democrats and opponents of gerrymandering, who have been encouraged that the controversial practice of redrawing voting districts to divide political power is facing more intense scrutiny from the legal community.  The Court’s firm stance on racial gerrymandering sets the tone for future litigation, and could become critical in the upcoming federal elections which are sure to be contentious, divisive, and closely monitored.

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