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May 26, 2017

The Shifting Ground of Redistricting Law

(Cross-posted from Balkinization)

Chris Elmendorf

The tectonic plates of redistricting law are starting to slide—and quickly. Earlier this year, a three-judge district court struck down Wisconsin’s state legislative map as an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander, the first such holding by any federal court in more than a generation. Federal courts in Maryland and North Carolina have also issued supportive rulings in current partisan gerrymandering cases, allowing the plaintiffs' claims to proceed to trial.  

Meanwhile, yesterday’s Supreme Court decision in Cooper v. Harris, the North Carolina racial gerrymandering case, augurs a major recontouring of the redistricting landscape as the Equal Protection plate comes crashing into the Voting Rights Act (VRA) plate. Section 2 of the VRA has long been understood to require the drawing of electoral districts in which racial minorities can elect their “candidates of choice” in locales where white and minority voters have very different political preferences. Yet since the 1990s, the equal protection clause has required strict scrutiny of any district in whose design race was the “predominant factor.” The Constitution disfavors the intentional sorting of voters among districts on the basis of their race. Until recently, however, it was widely thought that the “predominant factor” test for racial sorting / equal protection claims would be met only as to districts in which both (1) minority citizens comprise a majority of the voting-age population, and (2) the district’s boundaries are wildly incongruent with “traditional districting principles,” such as compactness and respect for local government boundaries.

But in Bethune Hill v. Virginia, decided two months ago, the Supreme Court clarified that the “predominant factor” test is satisfied whenever race was the overriding reason for moving a group of voters into or out of a district, irrespective of the district’s apparent conformity to traditional criteria. Then, in the unanimous portion of Cooper v. Harris, the Court applied strict scrutiny to a district because the state had “purposefully established a racial target” for its composition, and selectively moved heavily black precincts into the district to achieve that target. In the Republican redistricting plan at issue in Cooper, the target was 50% black. In a Democratic gerrymander of North Carolina, the target would probably be smaller, perhaps 40% black, to more efficiently distribute reliable black Democratic voters while continuing to enable the election of some black candidates. But the actual threshold (50% vs. 40%) seems legally irrelevant.

How then is a state to comply with Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which, as noted above, has long required states to create districts with enough minority voters (a "racial target") to consistently elect minority “candidates of choice.” One unhappy possibility is that the Court will simply undertake to free redistricters from the latter obligation, holding Section 2 unconstitutional or narrowing it beyond recognition on the basis of an asserted conflict with the anti-sorting equal protection principle. 

Another possibility is that federal courts will require redistricters to follow a path established by Alaska's Supreme Court as a matter of state constitutional law. In Alaska, the state must first redistrict blind to race, then evaluate the resulting map for compliance with Section 2, and then make whatever minimal (?) changes are necessary prevent a Section 2 violation. Cooper v. Harris hints at this approach. Striking down District 1, the Court explained: "North Carolina can point to no meaningful legislative inquiry into what it now rightly identifies as the key issue: whether a new, enlarged District 1 [enlarged to comply with one person, one vote], created without a focus on race but however else the State would choose, could lead to § 2 liability.”

Insofar as today’s decision in Cooper advances the Alaska framework, the million dollar question will be how a state redistricting authority must assess its initial race-blind map for compliance with Section 2. Here the law could evolve in any number of directions, but given the Supreme Court’s aversion to racial targets, the Court may well allow states to count for Section 2 compliance purposes any district in which minority voters are likely to wield some influence (say, any district with a Democratic majority, or any district in which Democrats would lose their working majority if no minority voters went to the polls). This would represent a dramatic change in the law of Section 2, since until now nearly all courts have focused on the question of whether districts enable the election of authentic candidates of choice of the minority community, rather than minimally acceptable (and usually white) Democrats.

Of course, all of this is somewhat speculative. Writing at SCOTUSblog, Kristen Clarke and Ezra Rosenberg argue that Cooper and Bethune Hill, read together, require plaintiffs bringing a racial sorting / equal protection claim to show (as the trigger for strict scrutiny) quite a bit more than the existence of a firm racial-composition target plus the movement of voters to achieve the target. I’m not convinced, but for now, there’s enough looseness in the doctrine for lower courts to go either way on this question. 

What is clear is that the Supreme Court, unhappy about racial sorting, is on guard against pretextual justifications for the practice. As Justice Kennedy for the Court remarked in Bethune Hill, “Traditional redistricting principles . . . are numerous and malleable . . . . By deploying those factors in various combinations and permutations, a State could construct a plethora of potential maps that look consistent with traditional, race-neutral principles. But if race for its own sake is the overriding reason for choosing one map over others, race still may predominate.”

Going forward, any redistricters who undertake to draw districts with a racial-composition target (majority-minority or otherwise) would do well to announce that the target is merely one objective to be considered and balanced alongside many others, rather than a categorical command. The crossing of fingers is also recommended.