The justices had already upheld the plan in a 2014 decision but revisited the issues after a remand by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The question this time around was whether the 2011 plan survived constitutional scrutiny under the high court’s decision last term in Alabama Legislative Black Caucus v. Alabama, holding that lawmakers should not apply mechanical racial formulas when drawing voting lines.
In response, a majority of the state justices said yes, as indicated by Justice Paul Newby in his opinion for the court:
We agree with the unanimous three-judge panel that the General Assembly’s enacted plans do not violate plaintiffs’ constitutional rights. We hold that the enacted House and Senate plans, as well as the federal Congressional plan, satisfy state and federal constitutional and statutory requirements and, specifically, that the three-judge panel’s decision fully complies with the Supreme Court’s decision in Alabama.
Republican state lawmakers in Alabama and North Carolina approached their 2010 redistricting in similar fashion – not surprising given that they operated with guidance and funding from party operatives in Washington.
Both drew voting maps based upon statistical formulas they claimed were necessary to avoid Voting Rights Act liability, with little regard to what had been happening on the ground in terms of minority political control.
But that “on the ground” analysis is what’s called for, as Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer noted when writing for the majority in the Alabama case.
Discussing the requirement that state voting maps be narrowly tailored to meet Voting Rights Act requirements, Breyer said:
[W]e conclude that the District Court and the legislature asked the wrong question with respect to narrow tailoring. They asked: “How can we maintain present minority percentages in majority-minority districts?” But given §5’s language, its purpose, the Justice Department Guidelines, and the relevant precedent, they should have asked: “To what extent must we preserve existing minority percentages in order to maintain the minority’s present ability to elect the candidate of its choice?” Asking the wrong question may well have led to the wrong answer.
“One of the things we think is important in the Alabama case is that the Alabama legislature engaged in a mechanical process when drawing districts that is inconsistent with the sensitive, strict scrutiny and narrow tailoring that the Supreme Court said has to happen in these redistricting plans,” Eddie Speas, one of the attorneys for the challengers to North Carolina’s plan, said after the Alabama decision.
“And North Carolina lawmakers were guilty of this sin twice: First they adopted the rule that they would draw majority – minority districts in numbers proportional to the state’s black population. And then they drew each of those districts to have at least 50 percent total black voting age population.”
What resulted from those directions in both states were maps that packed African-American voters into fewer districts and strengthened the white Republican vote elsewhere.
The takeaway from the Supreme Court’s decision in Alabama, and the upshot for the state Supreme Court on remand, was that a state’s rote application of quotas when drawing voting maps without regard to actual minority political realities on the ground won’t satisfy its obligations under the Voting Rights Act.
That’s been a constant in the court’s body of redistricting law.
Years ago in Bartlett v. Strickland, for example, the court concluded that Voting Rights Act intervention was unnecessary in districts where black voters exercised political control while still a population minority.
“In areas with substantial crossover voting it is unlikely that the [parties] would be able to establish . . . bloc voting by majority voters,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the court there. “In those areas majority-minority districts would not be required in the first place.”
The rejection of the rote use of racial quotas has also been a constant for the current justices of the Supreme Court – especially the conservatives.
“The Voting Rights Act doesn’t require the blunt use of quotas,” election law expert Justin Levitt said after the Alabama ruling. “It requires real attention to politics on the ground. That’s entirely consistent with how the court has treated race in other contexts – affirmative action, for example — and inconsistent with how states like Alabama and North Carolina have treated race in redistricting.”
In today’s decision, the majority paid little heed to that on-the-ground assessment — analyzing the trial court’s decision instead through the intricacies of redistricting law.
In her dissenting opinion, joined in by Justices Robin Hudson and Sam Ervin IV, Justice Cheri Beasley noted the majority’s failure to address that overriding consideration as emphasized in Alabama.
“The majority reads [Alabama] so narrowly that its implications for the case before this Court are negligible at best. In my view, if the Supreme Court saw fit to vacate and remand the previous judgment for reconsideration in light of Alabama, this Court would do well to give credence to the legal principles imparted in that decision.”
For all the complexity of VRA jurisprudence, the bottom line is that the manipulation of district lines based on race to a greater extent than necessary to comply with the VRA is unconstitutional. The record in this case contains evidence tending to show that the General Assembly used numerical targets formulated by racial considerations to avoid liability under § 2 and ensure preclearance under § 5 without fully considering whether the decisions made were necessary to enable the minority group to elect its preferred candidate of choice in compliance with the VRA. Any such scheme would be unconstitutional.
A petition to the U.S. Supreme Court for review of today’s ruling is coming, according to attorneys for the plan’s challengers.
Read the full decision here.