Thursday, February 11, 2016
A three-judge federal district court last week ruled in Harris v. McCrory that two of North Carolina's congressional districts violated equal protection, because the state impermissibly used race as a predominant factor in drawing them.
The state claimed that it used race in one of the districts to comply with the Voting Rights Act. But the court rejected that claim, saying that even if compliance with the VRA is a compelling government interest, the state failed to demonstrate that it used race in a narrowly tailored way.
The court ordered the state to redraw the districts quickly, within two weeks, although the state has already asked the Supreme Court for a stay pending appeal.
North Carolina is notorious for its shenanigans with elections and voting. Recall that the state moved quickly to tighten voting requirements after the Supreme Court in Shelby County released it and other covered jurisdictions from the preclearance requirement in Section 5 of the VRA.
The case raises an important question, yet unanswered by the Supreme Court (but assumed for the purpose of further analysis in its cases), whether compliance with the Voting Rights Act (avoiding Section 2 liability, and avoiding the Section 5 non-retrogression rule in previously covered jurisdictions) can be a compelling government interest that could justify race-based redistricting. If so, the problem, addressed last Term in Alabama State Legislature, is that a state might then use race to pack black voters into districts in a way that dilutes their influence in other districts. The Supreme Court in Alabama gave four principles for courts to use in evaluating these kinds of claims (and remanded that case for further proceedings), but it didn't categorically answer the question whether and when states might use race to comply with the VRA (even if only putatively).
The case challenges North Carolina Congressional Districts 1 and 12. These were not majority-minority districts (majority-Black Voting Age Population, or "BVAP," districts) going into the 2010 census, but "African-American preferred candidates easily and repeatedly won reelection under those plans."
After the 2010 census, legislators engaged Dr. Thomas Hofeller, who served as redistricting coordinator for the Republican National Committee for the 1990, 2000, and 2010 redistricting cycles, to design and draw the 2011 Congressional Redistricting Plan. On instructions from legislators (which, they said, were based on VRA concerns), the 2011 plan increased the percentage of the BVAP in districts 1 and 2 so that they became majority-minority districts. DOJ precleared the plan, in the days before Shelby County, when preclearance was still a thing.
A prior state supreme court ruling held that race was the predominant factor in drawing CD 1, but that the state had a compelling government interest in using race to draw CD 1 to comply with the VRA. It also held that race was not a factor in drawing CD 12. The state high court thus found no violation of the Equal Protection Clause.
Plaintiffs in this federal case argued that the state used compliance with Section 5 as a pretext for packing black voters into CDs 1 and 12 in order to reduce those voters' influence in other districts.
The court ruled that "plaintiffs have presented dispositive direct and circumstantial evidence that the legislature assigned race a priority over all other districting factors in both CD 1 and CD 12." The court went on to say that even if compliance with the VRA is a compelling government interest for CD 1 (a point the court assumed, without deciding), the legislature's use of race in drawing the districts was not narrowly tailored to meet that interest: "Evidence of narrow tailoring in this case is practically nonexistent." (The state didn't give a compelling government interest or argue narrow-tailoring for CD 12.)
The next word on the case will come from the Supreme Court, which should rule soon whether to the stay the three-judge court's ruling pending North Carolina's appeal.