Redistricting

In ealry January a three-judge federal court struck down North Carolina’s 2016 Congressional redistricting plan concluding it was an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander designed to favor Republican candidates. Meanwhile the Supreme Court has agreed to decide two cases this term involving the question of whether and when partisan gerrymandering is unconstitutional. Read more about the North Carolina case and the lower court ruling here.

The federal court ordered the state legislature to come up with a new plan by January 24. The Supreme Court put that order on hold allowing the Republican legislators defending the plan to appeal to the Supreme Court.

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 Gill v. Whitford the Supreme Court has agreed to decide whether and when it is possible to bring a claim that partisan gerrymandering is unconstitutional.  

While the Court has repeatedly struck down district maps that rely on racial gerrymandering, it has never ruled that maps drawn to secure partisan advantage are unconstitutional. In 2004, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy – who may be the deciding vote in Whitford – wrote a concurring opinion indicating that partisan gerrymandering could be unconstitutional.

In North Carolina v. Covington the Supreme Court issued a three-page unauthored opinion ordering a North Carolina district court to reconsider its decision to remedy unconstitutional racial gerrymandering by truncating existing legislators’ terms and holding a special election.

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.  

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