Supreme Court Upholds Rejection Of North Carolina Congressional Districts

May 22, 2017
Originally published on May 22, 2017 9:56 pm
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Now to a decision from the U.S. Supreme Court that's likely to affect how congressional and state legislative districts are drawn. Today, the court ruled that North Carolina's Republican-controlled legislature redrew two of the state's congressional districts based on race. The court said that amounted to an unconstitutional racial gerrymander. Election experts said the decision could help similar challenges in other southern states. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: More than a quarter-century ago, the Supreme Court ruled that drawing legislative district lines based on race is unconstitutional. But, the court said, gerrymandering district lines does not violate the Constitution when it's done to gain partisan advantage. The question increasingly has been how do you tell the difference, especially when party affiliation correlates with race as it does in much of the South? Today, the high court ruled that placing a substantial number of voters inside or outside a district because of their race is forbidden, even when, as here the state contends, it acted not with a racial motive but to gain partisan advantage. In North Carolina, roughly two-thirds of white voters are Republican and about 90 percent of black voters cast their ballots most often for Democrats.

In one congressional district, the Republican-controlled state legislature had to add about 100,000 more voters after the 2010 census. It did that by adding mostly black voters to the district from the heavily black neighborhood of Durham and creating a district that now was majority black instead of a district with a substantial but minority share of black voters.

The state maintained that it was required to do that under the Voting Rights Act, but today the Supreme Court unanimously rejected that argument, as it has in similar cases from Alabama and Virginia. A second district, District 12, which has been the subject of Supreme Court litigation five times, did not need to add or subtract voters after the census. But the state legislature nonetheless added 35,000 African-Americans to the district and subtracted 50,000 whites of voting age. The result created another black-majority district.

Writing for the court, Justice Elena Kagan said that this reshuffling of voters had the effect of packing black voters into two districts and diluting the clout that black voters had in neighboring districts. Justice Clarence Thomas, the court's most conservative justice and the only African-American on the court, provided the fifth vote in the case. Dissenting were Justices Samuel Alito, joined by Justice Anthony Kennedy and Chief Justice John Roberts. Justice Neil Gorsuch did not participate in the case. Election experts across the board said that the decision in North Carolina is a very significant one. Richard Hasen teaches election law at the University of California, Irvine.

RICHARD HASEN: This case is a big deal because it's going to make it much easier for voting rights plaintiffs, especially in the American South, to challenge gerrymanders that are done by Republican legislatures.

TOTENBERG: Marc Elias, who successfully argued the case on behalf of a Democratic group headed by former Attorney General Eric Holder, was elated.

MARC ELIAS: I think that today is a warning siren to Republican legislatures that they are not going to be able to engage in the kind of cynical racial gerrymandering that they've engaged in the past without being held accountable in court.

TOTENBERG: In addition to all the practical consequences that today's ruling could have for redistricting in North Carolina in 2018 and the rest of the country after the 2020 census, there is a fascinating political twist to today's Supreme Court decision. A quarter of a century ago it was conservatives who challenged the redistricting plan in North Carolina and elsewhere, arguing successfully that race played an unconstitutionally large role in drawing district lines. In recent years, observes UC's Hasen, the sides have flipped.

HASEN: This is a transformation of the racial gerrymandering case. It's been progressing. It went from a tool being used by conservatives to stop the creation of majority-minority districts to now a tool to try to pull these Republican gerrymanders in southern states.

TOTENBERG: Liberal Democrats who hated the earlier decisions are now celebrating this one. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.