Case Summary

After North Carolina's congressional reapportionment plan with one majority-African-American district was denied preclearance under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, the State revised its plan to contain a second majority-African-American district that was highly irregular in shape, stretching 160 miles along Interstate 85 and, at most points, no wider than the highway corridor itself. Five white North Carolina residents filed a federal lawsuit against various state and federal officials, alleging that the two majority-minority districts were an unconstitutional racial gerrymander in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. Specifically, plaintiffs claimed that the State disregarded traditional neutral redistricting criteria (i.e. compactness, geographical boundaries, etc.) and drew the districts along racial lines to assure the election of two black representatives. A three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina dismissed the plaintiffs claims, finding, among other things, that they had failed to state an equal protection claim because favoring minority voters was not constitutionally discriminatory and the plan did not lead to proportional underrepresentation of white voters statewide.

In 1993, the U.S. Supreme Court overruled the district court's dismissal, holding for the first time that plaintiffs can state an Equal Protection racial gerrymandering claim by alleging that a reapportionment scheme is "so irrational on its face that it can be understood only as an effort to segregate voters into separate districts on the basis of race, and that the separation lacks sufficient justification." The Court explained that racial gerrymandering threatens special harms different from those present in vote dilution claims, and therefore any state legislation, including redistricting legislation, that explicitly or implicitly distinguishes among citizens on account of their race must be narrowly tailored to further a compelling governmental interest. While the Court rejected the argument that racial gerrymandering doesn't implicate constitutional concerns when it favors the minority on the grounds that the equal protection analysis is not dependent on the race of those burdened or benefitted by a particular classification, it declined to making a ruling as to whether the intentional creation of a majority-minority district alone would always give rise to an equal protection claim.

Significance: Showing that an otherwise racially neutral redistricting plan produces a district which is so bizarrely shaped that it can only be rationally explained as an effort to segregate voters on the basis of race without adequate justification is sufficient to state a claim under the 14th Amendment's Equal Protection Clause.

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U.S. Supreme Court - 509 U.S. 630 (1993)