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High Court Strikes Racial Gerrymandering in North Carolina

By William Vogeler, Esq. | Last updated on

For the second time in as many weeks, the U.S. Supreme Court dealt a blow to North Carolina's efforts to change elections based on race.

Last week, the High Court let stand a decision that the state's voting laws unlawfully targeted African-American voters based on voter identification and other measures to keep them from the polls. This week, the Court struck down congressional boundaries that were drawn to pack more black voters into congressional districts.

"The Constitution entrusts states with the job of designing congressional districts," Justice Elena Kagan wrote in Cooper v. Harris. "But it also imposes an important constraint: A state may not use race as the predominant factor in drawing district lines unless it has a compelling reason."

Racial Boundaries

Affirming a ruling that the gerrymandering violated the Equal Protection Clause, the court considered how the state changed voting boundaries in Congressional Districts 1 and 12. The state admitted that race was part of the reason for changes in the 1st but not the 12th, where the redistricting increased black voting concentration nearly 7 percent.

Kagan, joined by Justices Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, and Sonia Sotomayor, rejected the argument that the change was for "political reasons." The state claimed it intended to add more Democrats to the district.

In a dissent joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Anthony Kennedy, Justice Samuel Alito said the majority did not apply another court ruling that allowed lawmakers to redistrict based on politics.

"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.

Justice Neil Gorsuch did not participate in the decision.

Partisan Politics

The struggle against North Carolina's racial politics is far from over. After the decision this week and the voter ID decision law last week, Common Cause said the state continues racial gerrymandering in the guise of partisan politics.

"Sadly, state lawmakers responded to rulings against their unconstitutional racial gerrymandering by then gerrymandering along partisan lines." the nonprofit organization said. "The result has been rigged elections that continue to deny North Carolina voters of their constitutional right to have a voice in choosing their representatives."

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