When conducting the preclearance process pursuant to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, the Department of Justice had adopted a "maximization" policy wherein the Department required States to create majority-minority districts whenever possible. After their initial plans had been denied preclearance, Georgia enacted a congressional districting plan containing an additional majority-African-American district, for a total of three, in the early 1990s. Voters in the newly added 11th District, which joined two urban, African-American neighborhoods 260 miles away from one another, filed a federal lawsuit challenging their district as a racial gerrymander in violation of the Equal Protection Clause under the Court's ruling in Shaw v. Reno. The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Georgia held that the 11th District did violate the Equal Protection Clause based upon "overwhelming" evidence showing that the state legislature's predominant factor in drawing it was race. The defendants appealed the District Court's ruling, arguing that evidence showing the state legislature deliberately classified voters on the basis of race could not alone suffice to state a claim under Shaw, and that, regardless of the legislature's purposes, a plaintiff must show that the district's shape is "so bizarre that it is unexplainable other than on the basis of race."
In 1995, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the District Court's ruling that the 11th District was unconstitutional under the Equal Protection Clause. The Court clarified that in order to trigger strict scrutiny under Shaw, plaintiffs bringing a racial gerrymandering claim can rely on either circumstantial evidence of a district's shape and demographics or more direct evidence of legislative purpose to make their required showing that race was the "predominant" factor motivating the drawing of lines such that traditional race-neutral districting principles (i.e. compactness, respect for political subdivisions, etc.) were subordinated. Without deciding whether the 11th District's bizarre shape alone was sufficient to trigger strict scrutiny, the Court found that there was ample additional evidence to show the legislature's predominant, overriding desire was to create a third majority-black district in order to comply with the Department of Justice's preclearance demands. Turning to their strict scrutiny analysis, the Court stated that even if compliance with the Voting Rights Act, standing alone, could serve as a sufficiently compelling interest, it could not do so in this case because the state's plan was only "required" under the Department of Justice's "maximization" policy, which went beyond what the Voting Rights Act required. Section 5 was intended to prevent voting-procedure changes that would lead to a "retrogression" in the power of racial minorities to effectively exercise their right to vote, and the Department's "maximization" policy exceeds this statutory authority and implicates serious constitutional concerns because it implicitly commands States to engage in presumptively unconstitutional race-based districting, thereby bring the Voting Rights Act into tension with the Fourteenth Amendment.
Significance: A redistricting plan must be analyzed under the "strict scrutiny" level of judicial review whenever race is shown to be the overriding, predominant consideration in the line drawing process.
U.S. Supreme Court - 515 U.S. 900 (1995)
- Opinion - 6/29/95