Supreme Court Orders Lower Court to Reexamine Use of Race in Virginia Redistricting

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  • David Vance

The Supreme Court today, in Bethune-Hill v Virginia State Board of Elections, remanded the case back to the federal district court to determine whether legislators, in drawing lines for 11 districts shortly after the 2010 Census, used race as a factor to dilute the voting power of Black voters in violation of the Equal Protection Clause. 

“Racial gerrymandering deprives voters of their voices in elections,” said Kathay Feng, CA Common Cause executive director and 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.”  

The plaintiffs, Virginia citizens, argue that legislators had improperly used race as a factor in redistricting 12 districts. While the Supreme Court did not rule on the merits of that argument, its majority held that the lower court had failed to give sufficient weight to relevant evidence that could have demonstrated improper racial motivation. Writing for the majority today, Justice Kennedy said the lower court should have analyzed conditions district by district as part of a “holistic analysis” to determine the legislators’ predominant motive. 

In the ruling Justice Kennedy cited precedent, noting that “[t]he harms that flow from racial sorting ‘including being personally subjected to a racial classification as well as being represented by a legislator who believes his primary obligation is to represent only the members of a particular racial group.’” 

Court observers are reading Justice Kennedy’s opinion for potential willingness by the Court to reevaluate the constitutionality of partisan gerrymandering cases as well, an issue that was left open in Veith.  The Court has the opportunity to issue a definitive opinion on the matter in Whitford v. Gill.    

Common Cause, along with New Virginia Majority, filed an amicus brief before the Eastern District of Virginia in 2015. Among other things, the brief included analysis by SUNY Binghamton academics, including from elections expert Prof. Michael D. McDonald, that graded potential alternative plans. Some alternative plans could have been put into place that would have ensured protection of plaintiffs’ – and others so situated – equal protection rights under the Constitution. 

To read today’s Supreme Court’s opinion, click here.

Common Cause has also filed a complaint against North Carolina state legislators for unconstitutional partisan gerrymandering in Common Cause v. Rucho. To read more, click here.

Common Cause has also filed briefs in multiple courts in Shapiro v. McManus, a challenge to Maryland’s partisan gerrymander. To read more, click here.