The Supreme Court has effectively struck down two North Carolina congressional districts, saying that the state relied too heavily on race in drawing them.
"A State may not use race as the predominant factor in drawing district lines unless it has a compelling reason," Justice Elena Kagan wrote in the court's opinion. "In this case, a three-judge District Court ruled that North Carolina officials violated that bar when they created two districts whose voting-age populations were majority black." The Supreme Court affirmed that ruling.
NPR's Nina Totenberg sums up Kagan's opinion on the two districts at issue in Cooper v. Harris:
"In one district, she said that a substantial minority was perfectly able to elect the candidate of their choice. In the second district, the majority agreed with the lower court that the lines had been drawn not on the basis of political affiliation as the Legislature argued, but on the basis of race, which is illegal."
The Republican-controlled North Carolina state Legislature redrew the district lines after the 2010 census. Neither had majority black voting-age populations before the redrawing, and both did after. In District 1, in the north-east part of the state, the number of black voters grew to 52.7 percent from 48.6 percent, according to the court. Likewise in District 12, a narrow area in western North Carolina, the number increased to 50.7 percent from 43.8 percent.
At issue in this case, as Nina has reported, is the relationship between party affiliation and race:
"The U.S. Supreme Court has made clear over the past quarter century that racial gerrymandering is an unconstitutional no-no, but partisan gerrymandering is still permissible. The question is: How do you tell the difference? Especially when the Voting Rights Act allows for some consideration of race to ensure minority representation, and when party affiliation often correlates with race."
Justices Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor joined Kagan in the majority opinion. Justice Samuel Alito wrote an opinion agreeing in part and dissenting in part, and he was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Anthony Kennedy. Justice Neil Gorsuch was not involved in this case.
Alito wrote that the court already had a precedent for District 12, because the justices ruled on it in 2001, when it "had the same basic shape." At the time, a lower court had ruled that the Legislature's main motive in drawing the district was to increase the number of black voters there; the Supreme Court disagreed, in part because the challengers could not produce an "alternative map" that could serve the same political goal "without producing the same racial effects."