May 15, 2017
On March 1, 2017, the Supreme Court decided Bethune-Hill v. Virginia State Board of Elections. 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. Plaintiffs argued that the new districts constituted racial gerrymanders that violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. A three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia disagreed, holding that the plaintiffs had failed to 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--District 75--the state legislature had satisfied the requirements of a compelling state interest and narrow tailoring.
On appeal to the United States Supreme Court, plaintiffs argued that the district court panel erred in a number of respects, including in determining that that race could not predominate unless its use resulted in an “actual conflict” with traditional districting criteria. Plaintiffs also argued that the use of race in drawing House District 75 was not narrowly tailored to serve a compelling government interest.
By a vote of 7-1, the Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the district court panel in part, vacated it in part, and remanded the case. In an opinion delivered by Justice Kennedy, the Court held that the district court panel had employed an incorrect legal standard to determine whether race predominated, noting that challengers are permitted to establish racial predominance in the absence of an “actual conflict” by presenting direct evidence of the legislative purpose and intent or other compelling circumstantial evidence. The Court rejected Plaintiffs’ challenge to District 75, however, determining that the legislature’s action ultimately survived strict scrutiny.
Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion was joined by the Chief Justice and Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan. Justice Alito filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment. Justice Thomas filed an opinion concurring in the judgment in part and dissenting in part.
To discuss the case, we have Jack Park, who is Of Counsel at Strickland Brockington Lewis LLP.