U.S. Supreme Court

Racial gerrymandering case will mostly return to the district court for new analysis

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A constitutional challenge to Virginia’s redrawing of 12 legislative districts to maintain a black voting-age population of at least 55 percent will mostly return to a federal district court as a result of a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday.

The Supreme Court upheld a three-judge federal district court’s ruling that one of the redrawn districts complied with the equal protection clause. But the court remanded the case for another look at whether race predominated in the legislature’s drawing of the 11 other districts.

The district court had ruled that the use of race was constitutional in one district, despite racial factors predominating over other redistricting criteria, because it was narrowly tailored to a compelling state interest. The district court had also ruled that race did not predominate in the 11 other districts and they were also constitutional.

In an opinion (PDF) by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, the Supreme Court said the district court had applied the wrong standard in determining whether race predominated in the drawing of the 11 districts. His opinion was joined in full by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

According to Lyle Denniston Law News, Kennedy outlined a standard that “tightened somewhat the option of using race” in redistricting. “In the practical world of redistricting,” the blog says, the guidelines are “almost certain to compel state legislatures to be newly cautious in how race is considered.”

Writing at the Election Law Blog, University of California at Irvine law professor Rick Hasen says Kennedy’s opinion is “more of a punt than a major decision.”

“The opinion is an important technical case about how to apply the standards [in] racial gerrymandering cases, but it breaks little new ground, and this case itself is likely to be back up to the Supreme Court for further review,” Hasen said.

The case is Bethune-Hill v. Virginia State Board of Elections.

Related article:

ABA Journal: “Supreme Court considers challenges to racial gerrymandering”

Updated at 2:40 p.m. to include information from Lyle Denniston Law News.

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