The Supreme Court Rules on Race-Conscious Districting

Georgia District Ruled Unconstitutional, Other Rulings Ambiguous

Todd Cox

    On June 29, 1995, the Supreme Court issued two important decisions in the area of voting rights. In Miller v. Johnson, plaintiffs claimed that Georgia's 11th Congressional District violated the Constitution's Equal Protection Clause. The district court ruled that race was the overriding and predominant factor in drawing the Eleventh District and that it was not narrowly tailored to meet the state's interest in complying with the Voting Rights Act.
        The Supreme Court affirmed. The Court held that in a Fourteenth Amendment challenge alleging unlawful race-conscious redistricting:

[T]he plaintiffs' burden is to show, either through circumstantial evidence of a district's shape and demographics or more direct evidence going to legislative purpose, that race was the predominant factor motivating the legislature's decision to place a significant number of voters within or without a particular district. To make this showing, a plaintiff must prove that the legislature subordinated traditional race-neutral districting principles, including but not limited to compactness, contiguity, respect for political subdivisions or communities defined by actual shared interests, to racial considerations. Where these or other race-neutral considerations are the basis for redistricting legislation, and are not subordinated to race, a state can ‘defeat a claim that a district has been gerrymandered on racial lines.’" (Miller, quoting Shaw v. Reno, 1993).

If that burden is satisfied, then strict scrutiny applies, and the district can be upheld only if it is narrowly tailored to further a compelling governmental interest.
        The only interest offered by the State of Georgia to support the drawing of the district was compliance with the preclearance requirements of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. In applying strict scrutiny, the Court held that Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act could not provide a compelling interest for creating the Georgia district, since, as the Court determined, the district was not reasonably necessary to comply with the Act.
        Prior to the creation of the 11th District, the Justice Department objected to two different Georgia congressional plans which created two black-majority districts. The Court stated that Georgia's two prior redistricting attempts were ameliorative and criticized what it characterized as the Department's policy of requiring Georgia to maximize the voting strength of the state's black voters. In so doing, the Court held that the Department went beyond its Section 5 authority and compelled Georgia to engage in unconstitutional race-based districting.
        In United States v. Hays, plaintiffs-appellees challenged the constitutionality of Louisiana's 4th Congressional District as a racial gerrymander which violated the Equal Protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The plaintiffs, however, did not reside in District 4, and the Court reasoned that the mere fact that the plan affects all voters in Louisiana by placing them into districts does not mean every voter has standing to challenge the plan as a racial gerrymander. The Court determined the plaintiff had failed to show they had personally been subjected to a racial gerrymander and vacated the decision and remanded with instructions to dismiss the complaint.
        The Court also issued three orders indicating it is still developing the standard it will apply in these types of constitutional challenges. In Dewitt v. Wilson, a case challenging the constitutionality of California's congressional redistricting plan, the Court summarily affirmed a district court opinion that the plan did not constitute a racial gerrymander, although the district court acknowledged that race was a consideration in creating the districts.
        The Court also accepted two cases for the next term: Bush v. Vera and Shaw v. Hunt. In Vera, the district court invalidated three Texas congressional districts as racial gerrymanders. In Shaw, the district court upheld the constitutionality of North Carolina's black-majority congressional districts.

        Todd Cox is a staff attorney with the Voting Rights Project of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights in Washington, D.C. His analysis appeared in a Lawyers' Committee newsletter.

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