The Supreme Court has ordered a second look at claims that Virginia legislators set out to dilute the voting power of black citizens when they drew new boundaries for 11 state legislative districts following the 2010 census.
A lower court had dismissed the racial gerrymandering allegations, but the justices said it failed to give sufficient weight to evidence that could have demonstrated an improper racial motivation.
The decision on Wednesday in Bethune-Hill v Virginia State Board of Elections, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, said the three federal judges who heard the case originally should have studied conditions district-by-district as part of a “holistic analysis” to determine the legislators’ predominant motive in adjusting the boundaries.
Justice Kennedy’s opinion may indicate some willingness by the high court to reevaluate the constitutionality of partisan gerrymanders. Several challenges to that practice are in the legal pipeline, including Whitford v. Gill, which originated in Wisconsin; Common Cause v. Rucho, a challenge to partisan gerrymandering in North Carolina; and Shapiro v. McManus, a case filed by a Common Cause activist in Maryland.
Common Cause, along with New Virginia Majority, filed an amicus brief in Bethune-Hill when the case was before the District Court in 2015. The brief included analysis by scholars at SUNY Binghamton, including elections expert Prof. Michael D. McDonald, that graded the plan approved by Virginia lawmakers and potential alternatives. The study concluded that alternatives were available that would have ensured protection of plaintiffs’ – and others so situated – equal protection rights under the Constitution.
“Racial gerrymandering deprives voters of their voices in elections” said Kathay Feng, Common Cause’s national redistricting director. “Like partisan gerrymandering, these schemes benefit some voters over others, resulting in the manipulation of elections. Such practices fundamentally harm our democracy. We applaud this decision and anticipate that the federal court will evaluate these districts with the ‘holistic’ approach required and strike down these racially-gerrymandered lines.”
Issues: Voting and Elections
Tags: Common Cause v. Rucho