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Supreme Court Ruling Smacks Down North Carolina's Racial Gerrymandering

'Holy cow this is a big deal,' says one observer

"This is a watershed moment in the fight to end racial gerrymandering," said National Democratic Redistricting Committee Chairman Eric Holder(Photo: justgrimes/flickr/cc)

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled (pdf) Monday that race predominated the Republican redrawing of two of North Carolina's congressional districts.

"This is a watershed moment in the fight to end racial gerrymandering," said National Democratic Redistricting Committee (NDRC) chairman Eric Holder, the former attorney general. "North Carolina's maps were among the worst racial gerrymanders in the nation."

The opinion was written by Justice Elena Kagan, with conservative Justice Clarence Thomas joining the other liberal justices in the majority.

Their decision affirms a lower court's ruling that found that the redrawing of the 1st and 12th Congressional Districts was "skillful mapmaking" that left " traditional redistricting principles [...] subordinated to race." Bloomberg writes:

The contested districts were both held by black Democrats. Critics said the goal was to dilute minority voting strength outside of those two districts and preserve the power of neighboring white Republicans.

"In affirming the trial court's decision," says the Brennan Center for Justice, "the Court rebuffed North Carolina’s attempt to erect formalistic doctrinal barriers to racial gerrymandering claims, like its effort to have the question of intent turn on things like the shape of districts or whether towns or precincts were split."

Doug Clark explains at the Greensboro News & Record:


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When challenged, the legislature admitted it was trying to seek a partisan advantage rather than acting out of any racial discrimination. Pushing more Democrats into the 1st and 12th left adjoining districts with Republican advantages. Partisan gerrymandering has long been legally acceptable.

Kagan called out the pretense. There's so much overlap between race and party that they aren't legally distinguishable.

Of the ruling, Rick Hasen writes a his Electionlaw blog: "Holy cow this is a big deal." He continues:

It means that race and party are not really discrete categories and that discriminating on the basis of party in places of conjoined polarization is equivalent, at least sometimes, to making race the predominant factor in redistricting. This will lead to many more successful racial gerrymandering cases in the American South and elsewhere, and allow these cases to substitute for (so far unsuccessful) partisan gerrymandering claims involving some of these districts. (Why Justice Thomas went along with all of this is a mystery to me. He joined in the opinion, and his separate opinion expresses no disagreement with these footnotes.)

According to Holder, "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."

It's also "a critical decision as communities prepare for the 2020 redistricting cycle, where states would still be able to purposely create legitimate majority-minority districts, consistent with this opinion," said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

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