- Alan Gura, Gura & Possessky PLLC
- Professor Kurt Lash, Illinois Law
On December 5, 2016, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in McCrory v. Harris and Bethune-Hill v. Virginia State Board of Elections. In these related cases, the Court considered redistricting plans introduced in North Carolina and Virginia after the 2010 census.
Plaintiffs in McCrory argued that North Carolina used the Voting Rights Act’s “Black Voting Age Population” requirements as a pretext to place more black voters in two particular U.S. House of Representatives districts in order to reduce black voters’ influence in other districts. The district court determined that the redistricting plan was an unconstitutional racial gerrymander that violated the Equal Protection Clause because race was the predominant factor motivating the new plan.
Plaintiffs in Bethune-Hill each resided in one of twelve newly proposed majority-minority districts for the Virginia Legislature, created to satisfy Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA), which requires that any new districting plan must ensure that there be no “retrogression” in the ability of racial minorities to elect the candidate of their choice. They argued that the new districts constituted racial gerrymanders that violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The district court held that the plaintiffs did not establish that race was the predominant factor in the creation of 11 of the 12 challenged districts. The district court also held that, although race was the predominant factor in the creation of one district, the General Assembly was pursuing a narrowly tailored compelling state interest in creating it.
In McCrory, appellants contend the lower court decision against them erred in five critical ways: (1) presuming racial predominance from North Carolina's legitimate reliance on Supreme Court precedent; (2) applying a standard of review that required the State to demonstrate its construction of North Carolina Congressional District 1 was “actually necessary” under the VRA instead of simply showing it had “good reasons” to believe the district, as created, was needed to foreclose future vote dilution claims; (3) relieving plaintiffs of their burden to prove “race rather than politics” predominated with proof of a workable alternative plan; (4) clearly erroneous fact-finding; and (5) failing to dismiss plaintiffs' claims as being barred by claim preclusion or issue preclusion. Appellants further argue that, in the interests of judicial comity and federalism, the Supreme Court should order full briefing and oral argument to resolve the split between the court below and the North Carolina Supreme Court which reached the opposite result in a case raising identical claims.
The Bethune-Hill appellants also assert five errors by the lower court: (1) holding that race cannot predominate even where it is the most important consideration in drawing a given district unless the use of race results in “actual conflict” with traditional districting criteria; (2) concluding that the admitted use of a one-size-fits-all 55% black voting age population floor to draw twelve separate House of Delegates districts did not amount to racial predominance and trigger strict scrutiny; (3) disregarding the admitted use of race in drawing district lines in favor of examining circumstantial evidence regarding the contours of the districts; (4) holding that racial goals must negate all other districting criteria in order for race to predominate; and (5) concluding that the General Assembly's predominant use of race in drawing House District 75 was narrowly tailored to serve a compelling government interest.
To discuss the case, we have Jack Park, who is Of Counsel at Strickland Brockington Lewis LLP.
On April 20, 2016, the Supreme Court decided Harris v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission. In 2012, the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission redrew the map for the state legislative districts based on the results of the 2010 census. Wesley Harris and other individual voters sued the Commission and alleged that the newly redrawn districts were underpopulated in Democratic-leaning districts and over-populated in Republican-leaning ones and that the Commission had, therefore, violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Commission countered that the population deviations were the result of attempts to comply with the Voting Rights Act. A three-judge district court ruled in favor of the Commission.
On appeal, the Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the district court by a vote of 8-0. Justice Breyer delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court, which held that the federal district court did not err in upholding Arizona's redistricting plan. The challengers failed to demonstrate, the Court explained, that illegitimate considerations more likely than not were the predominant motivation for the plan's population deviations.
To discuss the case, we have Mark F. “Thor” Hearne, II, who is Partner at Arent Fox LLP.
On June 23, 2016, the Supreme Court decided Fisher v. Univ. of Texas at Austin. This is the second time the case has come before the high court. Abigail Fisher, a white female, applied for admission to the University of Texas at Austin (the University) but was denied. Fisher sued the University and argued that the use of race as a consideration in the admissions process violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The district court held that the University’s admissions process was constitutional, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed. The case went to the Supreme Court (Fisher I), which held that the appellate court erred in how it applied the strict scrutiny standard, improperly deferring to the University’s good faith in its use of racial classifications. On remand the Fifth Circuit again ruled in favor of the University, deeming its use of race in the admissions process narrowly tailored to a legitimate interest in achieving “the rich diversity that contributes to its academic mission.”
On its second trip to the Supreme Court, the question was whether the Fifth Circuit’s re-endorsement of the University’s use of racial preferences could be sustained under the Equal Protection Clause. By a vote of 4-3, the Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the Fifth Circuit. Justice Kennedy delivered the opinion of the court, which held that the race-conscious admissions program in use at the time of Fisher’s application was narrowly tailored and lawful under the Equal Protection Clause. Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion was joined by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor. Justice Thomas filed a dissenting opinion. Justice Alito also filed a dissenting opinion, in which Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Thomas joined. Justice Kagan took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.
To discuss the case, we have Roger B. Clegg, who is President and General Counsel, Center for Equal Opportunity.
On June 9, 2016, the Supreme Court decided Williams v. Pennsylvania. Terrance Williams was convicted and sentenced to death for the robbery and murder of Amos Norwood. The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania affirmed Williams’ conviction and sentence, and his initial attempts to obtain state postconviction relief failed. His subsequent petition for federal habeas relief also failed. He again sought post-conviction penalty-related relief in state court and prevailed in the Court of Common Pleas on a claim of unlawful evidence suppression. On appeal, however, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court reversed the grant of relief and lifted the stay of execution (though a temporary reprieve was later granted by the governor for other reasons). The Chief Justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, Ronald Castille, who had joined the opinion reversing the grant of relief to Williams, had also been the District Attorney for Philadelphia during Williams’ trial, sentencing, and appeal. In that capacity, Castille had authorized his office to seek the death penalty for Williams. Williams had moved to have Chief Justice Castille recuse himself from hearing the appeal of post-conviction relief, but Castille declined to do so.
The central question before the U.S. Supreme Court was whether Justice Castille’s denial of the recusal motion and his subsequent judicial participation violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. By a vote of 5-3, the Supreme Court vacated the decision of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and remanded the case. Justice Kennedy delivered the opinion of the Court, which held that under the Due Process Clause, where a judge has had an earlier significant, personal involvement as a prosecutor in a critical decision in the defendant’s case, the risk of actual bias in the judicial proceeding rises to an unconstitutional level. Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan joined Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion. Chief Justice Roberts filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justice Alito joined. Justice Thomas also filed a dissenting opinion.
To discuss the case, we have Cassandra Burke Robertson, who is Professor of Law, Laura B. Chisolm Distinguished Research Scholar, and Director, Center for Professional Ethics at Case Western Reserve University School of Law.