Bethune-Hill v Virginia State Board of Elections: Redistricting & Racial Gerrymandering in Virginia
In Bethune-Hill v Virginia State Board of Elections, the U.S. Supreme Court considered what constitutes racial gerrymandering.
Through its holding that the district court applied an incorrect legal standard in determining that race did not predominate in 11 of the 12 Virginia legislative districts, the Court clarified that challengers need not establish, as a prerequisite to showing racial predominance, an actual conflict between the enacted plan and traditional redistricting principles.
Court Precedent on Racial Gerrymandering
The Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause prohibits a state, without sufficient justification, from “separat[ing] its citizens into different voting districts on the basis of race.” Miller v. Johnson, 515 U.S. 900 (1995). In Shaw v. Reno, 509 U.S. 630 (1993), the Supreme Court further held that courts must “exercise extraordinary caution in adjudicating claims” of racial gerrymandering since a legislature is always “aware of race when it draws district lines, just as it is aware of . . . other demographic factors.” Accordingly, a plaintiff alleging racial gerrymandering must “show, either through circumstantial evidence of a district’s shape and demographics or more direct evidence going to legislative purpose, that race was the predominant factor motivating the legislature’s [districting] decision,” which requires proving “that the legislature subordinated traditional race-neutral districting principles . . . to racial considerations.”
Facts of Bethune-Hill v Virginia State Board of Elections
After the 2010 census, the Virginia State Legislature drew new lines for 12 state legislative districts. The guiding principle was to ensure that each district would have a black voting-age population (BVAP) of at least 55 percent. Several voters filed suit, alleging that the new districts violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.
A three-judge District Court rejected the challenges. As to 11 of the districts, the court concluded that the voters had not shown “that race was the predominant factor motivating the legislature’s decision to place a significant number of voters within or without a particular district,” as required under Miller. In reaching its decision, the court held that race predominates only where there is an “actual conflict between traditional redistricting criteria and race.” It also focused its predominance analysis to the portions of the new lines that appeared to deviate from traditional criteria.
Finally, the court concluded that race did predominate the final district, but that the lines were constitutional because the legislature’s use of race was narrowly tailored to a compelling state interest. The court specifically found the legislature was justified in believing that a 55 percent racial target was necessary to avoid diminishing the ability of black voters to elect their preferred candidates, which at the time would have violated §5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The Court’s Decision in Bethune-Hill v Virginia State Board of Elections
The Supreme Court reversed. It concluded that “the District Court misapplied controlling law in two principal ways.” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote on behalf of the Court.
The Court first held that the District Court erred when it required the challengers to establish, as a prerequisite to showing racial predominance, an actual conflict between the enacted plan and traditional redistricting principles. “The Equal Protection Clause does not prohibit misshapen districts. It prohibits unjustified racial classifications,” Justice Kennedy explained.
“[I]nconsistency between the enacted plan and traditional redistricting criteria is not a threshold requirement or a mandatory precondition in order for a challenger to establish a claim of racial gerrymandering,” he added.In reaching its decision, the Court also rejected the state’s argument that race does not have a prohibited effect on a district’s lines if the legislature could have drawn the same lines in accordance with traditional criteria. “The racial predominance inquiry concerns the actual considerations that provided the essential basis for the lines drawn,” Justice Kennedy wrote, “not post hoc justifications the legislature in theory could have used but in reality did not.”
In reaching its decision, the Court also rejected the state’s argument that race does not have a prohibited effect on a district’s lines if the legislature could have drawn the same lines in accordance with traditional criteria. “The racial predominance inquiry concerns the actual considerations that provided the essential basis for the lines drawn,” Justice Kennedy wrote, “not post hoc justifications the legislature, in theory, could have used but in reality did not.”
As Justice Kennedy highlighted, the lower court established “no fewer than 11 race neutral redistricting factors.” This analytical framework is too prone to abuse, according to the Court. “By deploying those factors in various combinations and permutations, a state could construct a plethora of potential maps that look consistent with traditional, race-neutral principles,” Justice Kennedy wrote. “But if race for its own sake is the overriding reason for choosing one map over others, race still may predominate.”
The Court further held that the district court erred in considering the legislature’s racial motive only to the extent that the challengers identified deviations from traditional redistricting criteria attributable to race and not to some other factor. Justice Kennedy explained:
[T]he basic unit of analysis for racial gerrymandering claims in general, and for the racial predominance inquiry in particular, is the district… The ultimate object of the inquiry, however, is the legislature’s predominant motive for the design of the district as a whole. A court faced with a racial gerrymandering claim therefore must consider all of the lines of the district at issue; any explanation for a particular portion of the lines, moreover, must take account of the district wide context. Concentrating on particular portions in isolation may obscure the significance of relevant district wide evidence, such as stark splits in the racial composition of populations moved into and out of disparate parts of the district, or the use of an express racial target. A holistic analysis is necessary to give that kind of evidence its proper weight.
The Court did affirm the lower court’s decision with regard to one district. Although race did predominate when drawing it, the justices agreed that such measures were justified in that instance because lawmakers were attempting to comply with the Voting Rights Act.“The record here supports the legislature’s conclusion that this was one instance where” the 55 percent target “was necessary for black voters to have a functional working majority,” he wrote.
“The record here supports the legislature’s conclusion that this was one instance where” the 55 percent target “was necessary for black voters to have a functional working majority,” he wrote.
With regard to the 11 other districts, the Court remanded the case back to the trial court. According to the justices, “The district court is best positioned to determine in the first instance the extent to which, under the proper standard, race directed the shape of these 11 districts.”
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