After North Carolina redrew its congressional districts in 1992, several North Carolina voters filed a federal lawsuit challenging the state's 12th District as an unconstitutional racial gerrymander in violation of the Equal Protection Clause. Following an initial round of litigation wherein the District Court granted plaintiffs summary judgment based on its finding that racial considerations had predominated in drawing the 12th District, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed and remanded the case on the grounds there existed a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the evidence presented was "consistent" with a race-based objective or with an otherwise constitutional, political objective of creating a "safe" Democratic seat. Thereafter, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina again held that the legislature had used race-driven criteria in drawing the boundaries at issue based on four findings: the district's shape, its splitting of towns and counties, its heavily African-American voting population, and that the legislature had drawn the boundaries to "collect" precincts with a high racial, rather than political, identification.
In 2001, the U.S. Supreme Court again reversed, finding that the District Court's conclusion that "race, not politics" predominated when drawing the district's boundaries was clearly erroneous. The Court explained that the items in the evidentiary record tending to support the District Court's conclusion, all of which related to statements or testimony of individual state legislators, when taken together, did not show that racial considerations predominated in the boundaries' drawing because race in this case correlated closely with political behavior. In so ruling, the Court definitively stated that where majority-minority districts are at issue and racial identification correlates highly with political affiliation, the party attacking a district's boundaries must show, at the least, that the legislature could have achieved its legitimate political objectives in alternative ways that are consistent with traditional districting principles and that those alternatives would have brought about significantly greater racial balance. Because the plaintiffs failed to make such a showing here, the District Court could not properly find based upon the evidentiary record alone that race, not politics, was the predominant consideration, and therefore the 12th District did not violate the Equal Protection Clause.
Significance: In a racial gerrymandering case where political affiliation is shown to track closely with racial identification, a plaintiff is required to show, at minimum, that the state could have achieved its legitimate redistricting policy goals through alternative means that better adhered to traditional districting principles while also promoting a greater degree of racial balance.
U.S. Supreme Court - Nos. 99-1864, 99-1865 [532 U.S. 234 (2001)] [formerly Hunt v. Cromartie]
- Opinion - 4/18/01