U.S. Supreme Court Strikes Down N.C. Congressional Redistricting

by Ballard Spahr LLP

Ballard Spahr LLP

The U.S. Supreme Court has taken the extraordinary step of finding that two of North Carolina's congressional districts violate the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment because they impermissibly utilized race as the predominant factor in drawing district lines.

At issue in Cooper v. Harris was North Carolina's most recent attempt to redraw two congressional districts—District 1 and District 12—following the 2010 census. In District 1, the census demonstrated that it was underpopulated by nearly 100,000 people, and as a result, to satisfy the one person, one vote principle, North Carolina was required to add a significant number of people to the district. To accomplish this, the new map created a "finger-like extension of the district's western line" which increased District 1's black voting-age population (BVAP) from 48.6 percent to 52.7 percent. Unlike District 1, District 12 did not require any population-based changes to its boundaries. Nonetheless, the district was redrawn to significantly shift the racial composition of the constituency. The revamped District 12 gained "some 35,000 African Americans of voting age and lost some 50,000 whites of that age, [and] its BVAP increased from 43.8 percent to 50.7 percent." Following these changes, the plaintiffs brought a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the redrawn districts.

The Equal Protection Clause 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 brings a lawsuit challenging race-based lines, the Court employs 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 predominated over others, the design of the district must withstand strict scrutiny." The Court has "long assumed that one compelling interest is complying with the operative provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA)."

Regarding District 1, the Court found that "[u]ncontested evidence in the record shows that the State's mapmakers, in considering District 1, purposefully established a racial target: African-Americans should make up no less than a majority of the voting-age population." According to the legislators responsible for the new boundaries, "District 1 had to be majority-minority, so as to comply with the VRA." Specifically, the state argued that the redrawn version of District 1 was required to comply with Section 2 of the Act, which is aimed at preventing vote dilution on the basis of race. Applying the three-factor analysis set forth in Thornburg v. Gingles, the Court rejected the state's argument, emphasizing that the state's reliance on Section 2 was misplaced, because "electoral history provided no evidence that a Section 2 plaintiff could demonstrate the third Gingles prerequisite—effective white bloc-voting." In fact, the evidence supported the contrary conclusion—African American voters in District 1 were regularly able to have their preferred candidates elected by a large margin. Thus, the state had not met its burden under strict scrutiny analysis.

As to District 12, the Court's analysis focused exclusively on whether party affiliation rather than race was the predominating factor in redrawing the district, as the state made no effort to justify its decision otherwise. In performing its analysis on this point, the Court recognized that "[g]etting to the bottom of a dispute like this one poses special challenges for a trial court." Specifically, the trial court was responsible for making "a 'sensitive inquiry' into all 'circumstantial and direct evidence of intent' to assess whether the plaintiffs have managed to disentangle race from politics and prove that the former drove a district's lines." After reviewing all the evidence submitted to the trial court, the Court concluded that "[t]he District Court's assessment that all this evidence proved racial predominance clears the bar of clear error review."


DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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