Monday, May 22, 2017
SCOTUS Finds Racial Gerrymander in North Carolina Violates Equal Protection Clause
In its opinion in Cooper v. Harris, formerly McCrory v. Harris, the Court affirmed the findings of a three-judge District Court that North Carolina officials violated the Equal Protection Clause in the 2011 redistricting with regard to two districts: District 1 and District 12.
Recall that in Bethune-Hill v. Virginia State Board of Elections (argued the same day as Cooper v. Harris), the Court clarified the analysis for reviewing racial gerrymandering claims and remanded the matter back to the three judge District Court to determine 11 out of the 12 districts at issue.
Justice Elana Kagan, writing for majority in Cooper v. Harris, provides the analytic structure for assessing challenges to racial gerrymandering under the Equal Protection Clause:
- First, the plaintiff must prove that “race was the predominant factor motivating the legislature’s decision to place a significant number of voters within or without a particular district,” quoting Miller v. Johnson (1995). This means that the legislature "subordinated other factors," including geographic ones, partisan advantage, and "what have you" to racial considerations.
- Second, if racial considerations predominated over others, the design of the district must withstand strict scrutiny, requiring a compelling governmental interest achieved by narrowly tailored means.
- A recognized compelling governmental interest is compliance with the Voting Rights Act (VRA) is a compelling governmental interest. "This Court has long assumed that one compelling interest is complying with operative provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965."
- To satisfy the narrow-tailoring requirement, the state must show that it had “a strong basis in evidence” for concluding that the VRA required its action. "Or said otherwise, the State must establish that it had “good reasons” to think that it would transgress the Act if it did not draw race-based district lines," a standard which "gives States “breathing room” to adopt reasonable compliance measures that may prove, in perfect hindsight, not to have been needed."
The Court unanimously agrees that District 1 fails this standard. The racial intent in redistricting was clear. As to the means chosen, the Court rejected North Carolina's argument that it redesigned the district to comply with the VRA because in fact District 1 had historically been a "cross-over" district in which "members of the majority help a large enough minority to elect a candidate of its choice. In other words, there was no 'White Bloc' operating in District 1. The Court rejected North Carolina's argument that this could occur in the future, especially since the entire state was being redrawn. The Court notes that the officials seemed to believe - - - incorrectly - - - that they were required to draw a majority Black district, despite any evidence of "cross-over."
image: Appendix 1 to Court's opinion;
note District 1 in yellow and District 12 in orange.
The Court divided on the constitutionality of District 12, however. The only issue was whether or not the redistricting was racial; North Carolina did not argue it could satisfy strict scrutiny if race predominated. Writing for the Court, Justice Kagan, joined by Justices Thomas, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor, affirmed the findings of the three judge district court that District 12 was redrawn with reference to race. North Carolina contended that the officials redrew the district only with reference to political affiliation (which would not violate the Equal Protection Clause), arguing that the goal was to "pack" District 12 with Democrats (and thereby render other districts more Republican). Justice Kagan noted that the determination of whether an act was racially-motivated or politically-motivated involved a "sensitive inquiry" and that racial identification is "highly correlated" with political affiliation. But for the majority, the District Court's finding of racial predominance must be affirmed:
The evidence offered at trial, including live witness testimony subject to credibility determinations, adequately supports the conclusion that race, not politics, accounted for the district’s reconfiguration. And no error of law infected that judgment: Contrary to North Carolina’s view,the District Court had no call to dismiss this challenge just because the plaintiffs did not proffer an alternative design for District 12 as circumstantial evidence of the legislature’s intent.
Writing the dissenting opinion, Justice Alito, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Kennedy (who authored Bethune-Hill), vigorously contested the finding of racial intent. Alito faults the majority as well as the District Court as being obtuse: "The majority’s analysis is like Hamlet without the prince." This bit of snark in the body of the dissent, earns a rebuke from the majority in a footnote to its statement that this district is back before the Court for the sixth time, criticizing the dissent for simply adopting North Carolina's version: "Imagine (to update the dissent’s theatrical reference) Inherit the Wind retold solely from the perspective of William Jennings Bryan, with nary a thought given to the competing viewpoint of Clarence Darrow." In a counter footnote, Alito defends the opinion from merely accepting North Carolina's explanation.
The alternative map argument is also a point of contention. For the majority, it is one way of demonstrating that the redistricting officials acting on the basis of race:
If you were really sorting by political behavior instead of skin color (so the argument goes) you would have done—or, at least, could just as well have done—this. Such would-have, could-have, and (to round out the set) should-have arguments are a familiar means of undermining a claim that an action was based on a permissible,rather than a prohibited, ground.
But, the majority emphasizes, such strategies are "hardly the only way." For the dissent, a passage from Easley v. Cromartie, (2001) (Cromartie II), involving essentially the same district, is determinative: plaintiffs must show that the officials could have achieved their political goals in a manner with more racial balance.
Interestingly, in his brief concurring opinion, Justice Thomas references Cromartie II, in which he dissented. Thomas contends that Cromartie II misapplied the "deferential standard for reviewing factual findings," an error which the present decision "does not repeat."