Voting advocates notch win at Supreme Court

Voting advocates notch win at Supreme Court
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The Supreme Court in a 5-3 decision on Monday struck down two North Carolina congressional districts it said were illegally drawn based on race.

The majority’s ruling, which handed a victory to voting rights advocates, included a rare pairing of conservative Justice Clarence Thomas with the court’s four liberals.

While the decision won’t trigger any immediate changes in North Carolina — the state’s legislature redrew the districts last year while the case was ongoing — it could make it harder for legislators to draw up districts for partisan gain in 2020.


The court affirmed the decision of a lower court that found North Carolina officials used race as the predominant factor in drawing the state’s 1st and 12th districts in 2012 despite lacking a compelling reason to do so. Both of those districts had a majority-black voting-age population when first drawn.

Justice Elena Kagan, who delivered the court’s majority opinion, wrote that lawmakers unconstitutionally overpacked Rep. G.K. ButterfieldGeorge (G.K.) Kenneth ButterfieldHouse poised to hand impeachment articles to Senate Democrat makes case for impeachment in Spanish during House floor debate Democrats likely to gain seats under new North Carolina maps MORE’s (D) 1st District with black voters to deprive other black voters of their voting clout. The court also agreed with the lower-court finding that lawmakers used race, not politics, to reconfigure the 12th District now held by Rep. Alma Adams (D).

“We by no means ‘insist that a state legislature, when redistricting, determine precisely what percent minority population demands.’ But neither will we approve a racial gerrymander whose necessity is supported by no evidence and whose raison d’être is a legal mistake,” Kagan wrote about the 1st District.

Thomas, a member of the court’s conservative wing and the only black member, sided with Kagan and the court’s more liberal jurists — Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor.

Rick Hasen, a liberal-leaning University of California at Irvine law professor, called the ruling a “big deal” that will lead to more successful challenges of gerrymandering.

“This decision by Justice Kagan is a major victory for voting rights plaintiffs, who have succeeded in turning the racial gerrymandering cause of action into an effective tool to go after partisan gerrymanders in Southern states,” he wrote on his blog.

Justice Samuel Alito dissented from the court’s findings for the 12th District.

In an opinion joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Anthony Kennedy, Alito wrote that court precedent requires the voters challenging the congressional district to offer an alternative way to draw the district lines without producing the same racial effect.  

“A precedent of this Court should not be treated like a disposable household item — say, a paper plate or napkin — to be used once and then tossed in the trash,” he wrote. “But that is what the Court does today in its decision regarding North Carolina’s 12th Congressional District: The Court junks a rule adopted in a prior, remarkably similar challenge to this very same congressional district.”

Partisan gerrymandering — redrawing lines for an electoral advantage — has not been considered unconstitutional by the court so long as race is not the “predominant” factor.

But the Voting Rights Act does require lawmakers to consider race to protect minority rights, and many minority groups lean heavily toward voting for Democrats.

That’s why conservatives claim the court’s ruling on Monday will only create more confusion for legislators navigating vague redistricting rules.

“The only precedent it sets here is procedural confusion and chaos,” said Hans von Spakovsky, manager of the Heritage Foundation’s Election Law Reform Initiative.

“It’s like the Goldilocks and the Three Bears rule of redistricting. You can use race a little bit, but you can’t use too much. It has to be just right.”

Both the North Carolina GOP and state Senate President Phil Berger (R), who spearheaded the redistricting effort, cited Alito’s dissent in their own statements, arguing that the court has dealt them an impossible task.

One court watcher, University of Florida political science professor Michael McDonald, told The Hill that while the ruling bodes well for limiting racial gerrymandering, the dissent could tip the hand of Kennedy, seen as the swing vote in future cases on partisan gerrymandering. 

Alito wrote, “Our prior decisions have made clear that a jurisdiction may engage in constitutional political gerrymandering.” By signing onto the dissent, Kennedy could be signaling he agrees.

“You have to hope that Kennedy, for some reason, decided to sign onto this dissenting opinion but didn’t mean it all the way,” McDonald said. 

Democrats have marshaled serious resources behind redistricting reform and voting rights in the hopes of restoring their ranks at the state level. The 2020 elections will determine who controls state legislatures, which will in turn have the power to redraw congressional maps.

Former Attorney General Eric HolderEric Himpton HolderWisconsin governor rolls out proposal for redistricting committee End impeachment's government shutdown Parties to wage census battle with outside groups MORE is leading the National Democratic Redistricting Committee with help from former President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaFormer NYT correspondent rips Democrats' 'selective use' of constitutional violations Obama portraits leaving National Portrait Gallery to tour museums across the country Tulsi Gabbard explains decision to sue Hillary Clinton: 'They can do it to anybody' MORE. Priorities USA, the super PAC that boosted Democrat Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonSanders to Clinton: 'This is not the kind of rhetoric that we need' Sekulow vows Bidens, Ukraine will be part of Trump impeachment defense Elizabeth Warren: More 'Hillary' than Hillary MORE’s 2016 presidential bid, has rebranded in part around voting rights protection. And former Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander has launched his own group, Let America Vote, to fight the messaging wars.

Kander cited Alito’s dissent as an example of why the battle for public opinion is crucial.

“That’s why it’s so important that we get to a point where politicians have to think twice before they use race-based voter suppression tactics,” Kander told The Hill.

“It’s not enough to rely on the courts, especially with [President] Trump appointing judges, [Attorney General] Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsLawmaker wants Chinese news outlet to register as foreign agent Trump-aligned group launches ad campaign hitting Doug Jones on impeachment ICE subpoenas Denver law enforcement: report MORE running the Justice Department. We have to have strong political pressure.”

And as Democrats raise the issue, the party has gotten help from allies catapulting the issue into the public eye.

HBO comedian John Oliver devoted half of an April episode to gerrymandering — a 20-minute YouTube video of that segment has more than 5.3 million views.

That segment spent a healthy dose of time on North Carolina, including a quote from North Carolina state Rep. David Lewis (R) hammering home the point that the state’s new maps were only drawn for explicitly partisan gain and that no nonpartisan commission could be trusted to be truly unbiased.

“The foundations of democracy are built on the idea that everybody’s vote should count equally,” Oliver says.

“Every one of us should get an equal chance to make a bad decision that f---s things up for everyone else.”