Supreme Court Strikes Down Gerrymandered North Carolina Districts, Setting Stage For Future Rulings

It's a huge win for democracy.

On Monday, the Supreme Court ruled that North Carolina lawmakers violated the Constitution by using race as a basis to draw congressional districts.

Gerrymandering the districts (or redrawing them to benefit a political party), was meant to give the Republican party their best shot at keeping congressional seats in North Carolina — at least that's what the lawmakers said. But the high court ruled that the effort went beyond partisan gerrymandering, and instead was meant to pack African American voters into two congressional districts in the state. 

Justice Clarence Thomas joined four liberal justices to help achieve a 5-3 ruling. 

"This is a huge ruling for African American and minority voters across the South," Michael Li, senior counsel in the Brennan Center's Democracy Program, told A Plus. "This last decade saw a remarkable systematic targeting of minority voters in the South — often with the defense that map drawers were simply trying to achieve partisan ends rather than racial ones. That's, of course, a false binary."

This ruling upheld a previous court ruling that said the 1st and 12th congressional districts had been packed with African Americans voters, minimizing their influence across the state. Because the Voting Rights Act of 1965 dictates that district lines must be drawn in a way that enables African Americans to elect their chosen representatives, the courts found that this racially charged gerrymandering was unconstitutional. 

"Today, the court rightly said that even if your ends were an attempt to advantage your party, that doesn't give you free rein to use race," Li said. "The court also rejected the notion that racial gerrymandering was about the shapes of districts or whether you split too many precinct lines. Instead, the court said that you have to take a holistic approach and take into account all of the circumstantial and direct evidence of lawmaker intent."

Despite the ruling, the battle is not over. Major gerrymandering cases are working their way through the courts in Texas, North Carolina, Alabama and Georgia. Some, like Hans von Spakovsky of the right-wing Heritage Foundation, oppose the ruling and believe it blurs the law. 

"The Supreme Court says race can be a factor in redistricting but not the predominant factor, a rule that is so vague, so broad, and so lacking in a definable legal standard that it is not really a rule at all," he told USA Today.

Even Li admits that, despite the landmark nature of this ruling, there is still plenty of work to do.

"Today's ruling offers a nuanced way of looking at when legislatures think excessively about race in redistricting," Li said. "But it still hasn't clearly taken excessive partisanship off the table, at least when you aren't using race to accomplish partisan ends. But important cases are working their way through the courts that will give the Supreme Court a chance to finally say when a map drawn for partisan purposes goes too far."

Cover photo via Shutterstock /  Gary Blakeley.


Subscribe to our newsletter and get the latest news and exclusive updates.