U.S. Supreme Court Sends Virginia Redistricting Case Back to Lower Court

by | March 1, 2017

By David G. Savage

The Supreme Court has refused a plea from Democratic Party lawyers, at least for now, to rein in alleged "racial gerrymandering" by Republican-led states in the South that protects black lawmakers at the expense of other Democrats.

Instead, the justices decided Wednesday against ruling on a Virginia case over racial gerrymandering and sent it back for further hearings before a district judge.

The case of Bethune-Hill v. Virginia highlighted the dilemma faced by Democrats who complain they wield little power in many states because of gerrymandering by Republicans. In response, however, Republicans sometimes point to the Voting Rights Act and argue they must concentrate black voters into a small number of black-majority districts. The law has been interpreted to mean states may not backtrack or retreat in the number of elected black or Latino lawmakers.

While these black-majority districts reliably elect black Democrats, they also may help Republicans win more seats in the adjoining areas.

Last year, Democratic lawyers appealed to the high court, arguing Virginia's Republican leaders had engaged in unconstitutional racial gerrymandering in 2011 when they drew 12 state house districts with a 55 percent black majority. They urged the court to rule that the use of such racial targets in drawing districts violated the Constitution

In Wednesday's opinion, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said the court was uncomfortable with such racial line-drawing, but it nonetheless may be needed to protect the seats of black legislators.

"The state did have good reasons under these circumstances" to set a racial threshold for some districts, he said.

"Holding otherwise would afford state legislatures too little breathing room, leaving them trapped between the competing hazards of liability under the Voting Rights Act and the equal protection clause" of the Constitution.

Kennedy described how a Republican leader and a black lawmaker worked together in drawing the districts. The "55 percent criterion emerged from certain members of the House Black Caucus and the leader of the redistricting effort in the House," he wrote. The final redistricting plan had "broad support from both parties," he added.

The court's opinion said the district judge should take another look at 11 of the districts to see whether the use of the 55 percent was needed. The court affirmed the upholding of the 12th district because the judge already said the 55 percent target was justified.

The outcome leaves undecided many of the key issues for the next round of state redistricting, which will begin after the 2020 census.

Kennedy's opinion spoke for six justices. Writing separately, Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito questioned whether the Voting Rights Act should be interpreted to require race-based districts in some circumstances.

(c)2017 Tribune Co.