U.S. Supreme Court

Supreme Court strikes down redrawn North Carolina districts as unconstitutional racial gerrymanders

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The U.S. Supreme Court has struck down two majority-black congressional districts created after the 2010 census in North Carolina.

In a decision (PDF) on Monday by Justice Elena Kagan, the court said officials did not have a compelling reason to pack more black voters into the two districts that were already electing preferred candidates of most black voters.

The decision affirmed a ruling by a special three-judge federal district court panel that the districts were racial gerrymanders that violated the equal protection clause.

In Congressional District 1, the redistricting increased black voting age population from 48.6 percent to 52.7 percent. In Congressional District 12, the black voting age population increased from 43.8 percent to 50.7 percent.

Former attorney general Eric Holder, chairman of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, said in a statement that the decision is “a watershed moment in the fight to end racial gerrymandering.”

“North Carolina’s maps were among the worst racial gerrymanders in the nation,” Holder said. “Today’s ruling sends a stark message to legislatures and governors around the country: Racial gerrymandering is illegal and will be struck down in a court of law.”

Kagan’s opinion was joined by Justices Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor. Justice Neil Gorsuch didn’t take part in the decision.

“The Constitution entrusts states with the job of designing congressional districts,” Kagan wrote. “But it also imposes an important constraint: A state may not use race as the predominant factor in drawing district lines unless it has a compelling reason.”

The state admitted that it took race into account in redrawing District 1, but claimed its intent in redrawing District 12 was to pack the district with Democrats, rather than African Americans. The district court had rejected the political explanation, a finding that was supported by the evidence at trial, Kagan said.

Justice Samuel Anthony Alito Jr. concurred in part and dissented in part in an opinion joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Anthony M. Kennedy.

Alito said the majority’s decision on District 12 “junks a rule adopted in a prior, remarkably similar challenge to this very same congressional district.”

According to the rule, when lawmakers claim they redrew district boundaries because of politics, rather than race, the challengers must show lawmakers could have achieved their legitimate political objective in alternate ways. That rule wasn’t followed in the instant case, Alito said.

“A precedent of this court should not be treated like a disposable household item—say, a paper plate or napkin—to be used once and then tossed in the trash,” Alito wrote.

The case is Cooper v. Harris, formerly McCrory v. Harris.

The battle over North Carolina’s districts isn’t over, according to a press release by Common Cause.

Reacting to the ruling by the special district court in the case, state lawmakers redrew North Carolina’s congressional maps last year. According to Common Cause, lawmakers said race would not be a consideration. “Instead, legislative leaders openly boasted they would gerrymander along partisan lines to give Republicans maximum advantage,” the press release says. “Their rationale was that while various court rulings have made it clear that racial gerrymandering is unconstitutional, the U.S. Supreme Court has not yet made a decisive ruling on the constitutionality of partisan gerrymandering.”

Common Cause is challenging the newly redrawn districts and hopes the Supreme Court will declare partisan gerrymandering to be unconstitutional in a future decision.

Updated May 25 to clarify that the districts in question were created after the 2010 census.

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