Line drawing

The Supreme Court won’t decide if Virginia’s gerrymandering was racist

The Supreme Court won’t decide if Virginia’s gerrymandering was racist

A district court will have to re-examine whether the Republican-led legislature in Virginia illegally sought to dilute black voters’ influence when it drew legislative districts, the Supreme Court ruled Wednesday. Democrats may now have another chance to win more of the state’s legislative districts.

Following the 2010 census, GOP lawmakers rewrote the boundaries of 12 Virginia legislative districts in order to create a black population of at least 55 percent within each. The Legislature and the Department of Justice then approved the maps of the districts. Yet in 2014, a voter in each of those 12 districts filed a joint lawsuit arguing the gerrymandering illegally weakened black voters’ impact in other districts, as African-Americans traditionally vote for Democrats.

In order to make sure that minorities have a fair voice at the ballot box, Supreme Court precedent holds that race can be used as a factor when drawing legislative districts — but it can’t be the primary factor.

A district court initially found that race was not the main factor behind the drawing of 11 of these 12 districts. (In the 12th court, it found that race was in fact used to gerrymander illegally.) The Supreme Court didn’t go so far as to say it was. Instead, the justices ruled in a 7-1 opinion that the standard the district court used to make its decision was not constitutional, and that it needed to take another look at the case.

Election law experts are torn on the importance of the ruling. Rick Hasen, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine, law school, described the decision in a blog post as “more of a punt than a decision.” States didn’t get much new insight into how they should consider race when drawing districts, he said.

Yet New York University law professor Richard Pildes disagreed. “On racial gerrymandering and the Constitution, the Court’s opinion today is more forceful and clear than it has ever been that unconstitutional racial gerrymandering can occur even when a State draws districts that look regular and follow traditional districting principles,” he wrote in a blog post. He added, “This principle is going to make it significantly easier for plaintiffs to win racial gerrymandering claims.”

Regardless of the case’s legal implications, it’s likely to have a political impact. Virginia political analyst Bob Holsworth told the Washington Post that he thinks the decision could give Virginia Democrats critical political momentum. “The redistricting case is on top of sort of the mobilization the Democrats are seeing in their local meetings,” he said, “the increased attendance, the interest in actually running for election that you’re seeing among more people.”

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