Equal Protection

What if a district court adopts a redistricting plan and the state legislature later codifies that plan. May the same district court later rule the redistricting plan is unlawful and/or unconstitutional? That is what the Supreme Court will decide in Abbott v. Perez.

A number of persons and advocacy groups challenged the Texas Legislature’s 2011 state legislative and congressional redistricting plan claiming it discriminated against black and Hispanic voters in violation of the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause and the Voting Rights Act.

A three-judge district court issued a remedial redistricting plan which the U.S. Supreme Court vacated in 2012. The district court then drew another remedial redistricting plan called plan C235. In plan C235 the court reconfigured nine challenged districts from the legislature’s 2011 plan but retained two districts, CD27 and CD35, without reconfiguration. In 2013 the state legislature ultimately adopted plan C235.        

When a three-judge panel struck down North Carolina’s 2016 Congressional redistricting plan the case received significant media attention. Supreme Court redistricting cases rarely receive as much fanfare.

The decision garnered so much attention because it is the third three-judge panel in a relatively short period of time to rule a partisan gerrymander is unconstitutional. The Supreme Court has yet to articulate if and exactly when redistricting in favor of a political party is unconstitutional. But such a ruling may be imminent. The Supreme Court has already heard a case from Wisconsin and will hear a case from Maryland this term involving the constitutionality of partisan gerrymandering.

In Pavan v. Smith, a per curiam (unauthored) decision heard without briefing or oral argument, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed an Arkansas Supreme Court judgment that an Arkansas statute, which allows only the biological mother of a child born to a same-sex married couple to be listed on the birth certificate, is constitutional.

Terrah and Marisa Pavan married in New Hampshire in 2011, and Terrah gave birth to a child in Arkansas in 2015. The Arkansas Department of Health issued a certificate bearing only Terrah’s name based on a provision of the Arkansas code specifying that “[i]f the mother was married at the time of either conception or birth . . . the name of [her] husband shall be entered on the certificate as the father of the child.” This provision applies even if a child is conceived through artificial insemination, as the Pavan’s daughter was, and it is impossible that the mother’s husband is the child’s biological father.

Cooper v. Harris raises an issue litigated over and over since the 2010 census. Challengers claim the North Carolina legislature unconstitutionally packed minority voters into a few legislative districts to lessen their ability to influence races in other districts. The Supreme Court agreed holding 5-3 that a North Carolina District Court correctly ruled that North Carolina relied too heavily on race in designing two majority-minority congressional districts.

The Supreme Court has held that per the Equal Protection Clause if the use of race predominates in redistricting the district’s design must be “narrowly tailored” to serve a “compelling interest.” Complying with Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA), which prohibits vote dilution— “dispersal of [a group’s members] into districts in which they constitute an ineffective minority of voters”—is a compelling interest. A “strong basis in evidence” is needed to show the VRA requires race-based districting.  

In a 7-1 decision in Bethune-Hill v. Virginia State Board of Elections the Supreme Court rejected the notions that race predominates in redistricting only when there is an actual conflict between traditional redistricting criteria and race and that the predominance analysis should apply only to new district lines that appear to deviate from traditional redistricting criteria.

Regarding District 75, where the lower court determined race did predominate, the Supreme Court agreed the State’s use of race was narrowly tailored because it had “good reasons to believe” that a target of a 55% black voting-age population (BVAP) was necessary to avoid diminishing the ability of black voters to elect their preferred candidate.

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