Monday, March 21, 2016
The Supreme Court heard oral arguments today in Whittman v. Personhuballah, the case testing whether a state's move to pack black voters into a congressional district supposedly to comply with Section 5 of the Voting Right Act, but with the effect of diluting black voters' influence, violates equal protection.
Not surprisingly, the justices spent a good deal of time on standing, in particular, whether Representative Forbes, a congressman who had a lock on reelection in District 4, had standing to challenge the lower court's redistricting plan, because it made it tougher for him to get reelected in District 4. (Indeed, he's running in District 2, where he has a better chance of election, for this reason.) Justices Sotomayor and Kagan seemed to take strong positions that Forbes lacked standing; Justice Breyer staked out an only somewhat weaker position. The conservatives, along with Justice Kennedy, seemed to lean the other way.
On the merits, Justice Kagan put the finest point on the challengers' theory: If a legislature redistricts based malign racial intent, but the map also perfectly promotes acceptable political interests, is it subject to strict scrutiny? Michael Carvin, attorney for the challengers, said no. Justice Kagan went right to the point: "that sounds to me as though it's a harmless error rule for racial discrimination. And we've never had a harmless error rule for racial discrimination."
Chief Justice Roberts put a similar question to all the attorneys, but his hypo did not include any other evidence of racial motive: "If race and partisanship are co-extensive, then . . . which one predominates?" Opponents of the legislature's map had to concede that it'd be a tie; and under a tie, race could not predominate.
The difference between Justice Kagan's hypo and Chief Justice Roberts's hypo is the evidence of the 55-percent BVAP floor. But Chief Justice Roberts didn't seem inclined to look to that evidence to show that race predominated with the legislature. He asked: How do we determine the intent of the legislature? By 10 percent say-so? By 80 percent say-so? What if most of the legislators were only interested in protecting their own party, even though the sponsor of the legislature's redistricting plan used a 55-percent-BVAP (race-based) floor? If the direct evidence of a 55-percent-BVAP floor doesn't persuade that race predominated, then it's a tie, and then race didn't predominate--and the legislature's plan stands.
Chief Justice Roberts was also troubled that the lower court didn't require the plaintiffs to show that a map based on partisanship interests would be different.
With Justice Kennedy seeming to lean with the conservatives, the case could be headed for a 4-4 split, which would uphold the lower court's ruling that District 3 was an unconstitutional racial gerrymander.