Case Summary

When the Virginia General Assembly redrew its legislative districts in 2011, it intentionally drew twelve districts to ensure each had a black voting age population (BVAP) of at least 55%. A group of Virginia voters filed a federal lawsuit challenging these legislative districts as an impermissible racial gerrymander under the 14th Amendment's Equal Protection Clause, and the defendant-state officials defended the districts at issue by arguing they were necessary to comply with the Voting Rights Act. The District Court held that race predominates only where there is an "actual conflict between traditional redistricting criteria and race" and therefore confined its racial gerrymandering analysis to only those portions of new lines that appeared to deviate from traditional criteria.

In 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the District Court's rulings, finding that it misinterpreted the court's precedents on this issue. First, the Court clarified that plaintiffs can demonstrate racial predominance through either circumstantial evidence of a district's shape and demographics or more direct evidence of legislative purpose, and such a showing can still be made even when a plan otherwise respects traditional redistricting criteria and principles. Second, the Court explained that racial gerrymandering claims must always be analyzed on a "district-by-district" basis, and courts should never separate out any portion of a district's lines from the rest of it.

Significance: (1) Plaintiffs can still prevail on a racial gerrymandering claim despite the challenged map adhering to traditional redistricting principles; (2) when analyzing a racial gerrymandering claim, courts must look at the allegedly offending district(s) holistically to determine whether race predominated when drawing it as a whole, rather than when drawing individual lines within the district itself.

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U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Richmond Division - 3:14-cv-00852

U.S. Supreme Court - No. 15-680 [Bethune-Hill v. Va. State Bd. of Elections, 137 S.Ct. 788 (2017)]