The case concerns the constitutionality of North Carolina's redistricting plan, which created two majority-black congressional districts. The plan is being challenged as an unconstitutional racial gerrymander. The Federal District Court dismissed the claim, finding no support for the appellants' contentions that race-based districting is prohibited by the Constitution. However, the court concluded that the appellants had a valid claim under the Equal Protection Clause, which prohibits laws that explicitly distinguish between individuals on racial grounds. The Fourteenth Amendment requires state legislation that explicitly distinguishes among citizens based on race to be narrowly tailored to further a compelling governmental interest. The legal principle that racial classifications are presumptively invalid applies not only to laws that contain explicit racial distinctions but also to those that are race-neutral but are unexplainable on grounds other than race.
The dissenting opinion in this case argues that the plaintiffs cannot claim relief under the Equal Protection Clause because redistricting is different from other state decision-making processes. To prove gerrymandering, an identifiable group must demonstrate that they had less opportunity than other residents to participate in the political processes and elect legislators of their choice. Discrimination in the polity is what the Constitution is concerned with. The Supreme Court has established criteria for determining whether a redistricting plan is unconstitutional, including proof of discriminatory effects and strong indicia of lack of political power and fair representation. The UJO case established that intentional creation of majority-minority districts does not violate constitutional norms unless it unduly minimizes the white majority's voting strength. North Carolina was found to have interfered with black citizens' right to vote and was subject to the Voting Rights Act. The Attorney General's objection to North Carolina's plan was viewed as an administrative finding of discrimination against a racial minority.
Justice Blackmun, who previously did not agree with Justice White's opinion in a case involving redistricting, now concurs with Justice White's dissenting opinion that the use of race in redistricting does not violate the Equal Protection Clause unless it denies a particular group equal access to the political process or unduly minimizes its voting strength. Justice Blackmun finds it ironic that the majority recognizes this constitutional claim in a case where white voters challenge a redistricting plan that has resulted in the election of black representatives to Congress for the first time since Reconstruction.
Justice Stevens, in a dissenting opinion, agrees with Justice White that the decision of the District Court should be affirmed. He argues that the shape of District 12 was drawn to either advantage or disadvantage a group of voters and was specifically drawn to facilitate the election of a second black representative from North Carolina. He raises three constitutional questions: whether the Constitution requires contiguity or compactness in electoral district drawing, whether the Equal Protection Clause prohibits drawing district boundaries to favor an identifiable group of voters, and whether the answer to the second question should be different when the favored group is defined by race. Justice Stevens answers each question negatively and has previously written at length about them. He concludes that when an assumption that people in a particular minority group will vote in a particular way is used to benefit that group, no constitutional violation occurs.
Justice Souter dissents from the Court's decision to establish a new cause of action for electoral redistricting plans that are so bizarre that they can only be understood as an effort to separate voters based on race without sufficient justification. He argues that there is no reason to depart from prior decisions and subject this narrow group of cases to strict scrutiny instead of customary review for discrimination in electoral districting based on race. The Court has historically analyzed equal protection claims involving race in electoral districting differently from other forms of governmental conduct. Electoral districting requires consideration of race for legitimate reasons in racially mixed populations to avoid dilution of minority voting strength. The Voting Rights Act recognizes this need, and the Court has held that race may be constitutionally taken into account to comply with the Act. The Court applies different approaches to equal protection in electoral districting and nondistricting cases. The State's use of race in districting cases triggers heightened scrutiny, but this is not always applied to race-based districting decisions because the legitimate consideration of race is often necessary to comply with the Voting Rights Act. The categorical approach to districting decisions means that once it is shown that a given decision falls within a certain category, there is no need for further scrutiny. If a cognizable harm like dilution or the abridgment of the right to participate in the electoral process is shown, the districting plan violates the Fourteenth Amendment. If not, it does not.
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