May 22, 2017

Supreme Court Decides Cooper v. Harris

On May 22, 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Cooper v. Harris, No. 15-1262, holding that a three-judge district court panel did not err in concluding that race furnished the predominant rationale for North Carolina’s redrawing congressional district lines and that the State’s interest in complying with the Voting Rights Act (VRA) could not justify that consideration of race.

After the 2010 census, North Carolina redrew congressional district lines that significantly altered two of its districts, District 1 and District 12. The census revealed District 1 to be substantially underpopulated: To comply with the Constitution’s one-person-one-vote principle, the State needed to place almost 100,000 new people within the district’s boundaries. It did so, and it took most of the new people from heavily black areas of Durham so as to form a majority-minority district. District 12 was also reconfigured, resulting in an appreciable shift of the racial composition of the district.

Registered voters in the two districts brought suit against North Carolina officials, complaining of impermissible racial gerrymanders. After a bench trial, a three-judge district court panel held both districts unconstitutional, finding that racial considerations predominated in the design of the districts and that the State had no compelling reason for its attention to race in designing the districts.

The Supreme Court first rejected the State’s argument that North Carolina’s victory in a similar state-court lawsuit should dictate the disposition of this case or alter the applicable standard of review.

Turning to the merits, as to District 1, the Court upheld the district court’s factual finding that race furnished the predominant rationale for the redesign based on uncontested evidence showing the specific goal of creating a majority-minority district. The Court also upheld the district court’s determination that such race-based redistricting could not survive the strict scrutiny applied to racial gerrymanders. Although the Court has long assumed that compliance with the VRA constitutes a “compelling interest,” certain threshold conditions must be met to prove vote dilution under § 2 of the VRA including that the district’s white majority votes sufficiently as a bloc to usually defeat the minority’s preferred candidate. Here, electoral history provided no evidence of effective white bloc-voting; in fact, for nearly 20 years before the new districting plan was adopted, African-Americans made up less than a majority of District 1’s voters, but their preferred candidates scored consistent victories. Likewise, the State pointed to no meaningful legislative inquiry to establish that redistricting was necessary to avoid future vote dilution in the new, enlarged District 1. Because North Carolina’s belief that it was compelled to redraw District 1 rested on a pure error of law, the State’s use of race as the predominant factor in designing District 1 could not withstand strict scrutiny.

The Court also upheld the District Court’s factual finding that race predominated in the redrawing of District 12, finding that the district court did not clearly err in concluding that the evidence presented at trial established that race, not politics, accounted for District 12’s reconfiguration. The Court further rejected the State’s argument that where race and politics are competing explanations of a district’s lines, plaintiffs must introduce an alternative map that achieves a State’s asserted political goals while improving racial balance. Because North Carolina made no attempt to justify race-based districting in District 12, the Court did not need to analyze whether the State’s justification passed strict scrutiny.

Justice Kagan delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Justices Thomas, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor joined. Justice Thomas filed a concurring opinion. Justice Alito filed an opinion concurring in the judgment in part and dissenting in part, in which Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Kennedy joined. Justice Gorsuch took no part in the case.

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