December 21, 2016
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.