The Supreme Court handed a major victory to voting rights plaintiffs on May 22, with a decision that struck down the boundaries of two congressional districts in North Carolina as impermissibly effecting race discrimination. Cooper v. Harris, with a majority decision written by Justice Kagan, takes aim at the practice of diluting the power of minority voters by “packing” them into concentrated voting districts. Critics of the districts argued that their design had reduced the number of North Carolina districts that could potentially swing Democratic. (Eighty-seven percent of black voters nationwide identified as Democrats or leaned Democratic in 2016.)
Although the Court struck down unanimously the borders of North Carolina’s District 1, it voted 5-3 to strike down the state’s District 12. In the wake of the 2010 census, Republican legislators increased the District 12’s proportion of black voters to 50.7 percent, up from 43.8 percent. The state lawmakers argued that they increased the district’s black voters to provide Republicans with a partisan advantage, a line of reasoning rejected by the Court: “The sorting of voters on the grounds of their race remains suspect even if race is meant to function as a proxy for other (including political) characteristics,” wrote Justice Kagan in her majority opinion. She was joined by the Court’s liberal faction, as well as the Justice Clarence Thomas as the crucial swing vote. In his dissent, Justice Alito, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Kennedy, argued that the plaintiffs had not proved that race, rather than political party, was the motiving factor.
Constitutional experts have hailed the decision as precedent-setting, in that it could invalidate districts that are drawn for partisan purposes, but use race in doing so. “Holy cow this is a big deal,” wrote legal scholar Rick Hasen in a blog post following the decision. (Hasen, a professor of law and political science at the University of California, Irvine, also wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post.) Earlier court decisions, Hasen wrote, tended to treat these motivators as either-or possibilities, whereas this week’s ruling holds that “race and party are not really discrete categories.” He predicts the decision may lead to many more successful gerrymandering cases in the South and elsewhere.
In deciding Cooper v. Harris, the Court further interpreted provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which dismantled legal barriers at the state and local level that prevented African Americans from exercising their right to vote under the 15th Amendment. The Voting Rights Act is one several landmark laws, passed in the 1960s, which safeguard the civil rights of African Americans. One year earlier, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination in the workplace based upon race, as well as gender, national original and religion under Title VII.
If you think you have been subjected to race discrimination, you should consult with an experienced race discrimination attorney.