The Supreme Court largely ruled on Wednesday for a group of Democratic Virginia residents in a racial gerrymandering case that could have a big impact on legal challenges to GOP-led redistricting efforts throughout the country.
In the wake of the 2010 census, Republican legislators in Virginia redrew 12 House of Delegates districts so that 55 percent of their population consisted of African-Americans of voting age. But a group of Democratic residents from those districts pushed back in court, arguing that the lawmakers focused too much on the race of the voters rather than other, race-neutral criteria for putting them in those districts.
The Constitution prohibits drawing legislative maps on account of race, a practice known as racial gerrymandering, whenever race is the “predominant” factor in redistricting decisions. But the Supreme Court has also recognized that state legislators should have some leeway to draw districts that take race into account to allow minority voters to have a shot at electing candidates of their choosing.
In 2015, a three-judge federal court determined that 11 of the 12 Virginia districts didn’t amount to racial gerrymanders. But in a near-unanimous decision Wednesday, the Supreme Court asked the lower court to reassess those districts ― while declining to rule the maps unconstitutional outright.
“The District Court is best positioned to determine in the first instance the extent to which, under the proper standard, race directed the shape of these 11 districts,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, refusing to take the next step and pass judgment on how the districts were drawn.
Kennedy acknowledged that redistricting “is a most difficult subject for legislatures,” but reaffirmed the principle that lower courts should look at “racial predominance” when addressing racial gerrymandering ― a complex, fact-intensive test that considers the district’s shape, demographics and other “traditional redistricting criteria.”
Richard Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California, Irvine, characterized the ruling as “more of a punt than a major decision,” noted that the coming “fight will be over the details and application to particular cases.”
But Marc Elias, the Democratic lawyer who represented the Virginia voters and argued the case before the Supreme Court in December, said the ruling will have a bigger impact on the ground than commentators let on.
“Rick’s analysis ignores the vulnerability GOP maps have throughout the country under this ruling,” Elias wrote on Twitter, and predicted that similar challenges will pop up elsewhere as a result of Wednesday’s ruling.
Elias, alongside former Attorney General Eric Holder, is part of a Democratic coalition that’s seeking to use redistricting challenges to turn the tide of aggressive gerrymandering efforts in Republican-led statehouses across the country.
As part of that initiative, he’s also awaiting a decision in a separate North Carolina case he argued the same day as the Virginia one concerning the constitutionality of political gerrymandering ― or the heavy reliance on partisan voting patterns as a proxy for relegating voters of a particular race to a district.
“There is no constitutional right to political gerrymandering that has to be protected,” Elias told the court at the time. “What has to be protected is voters’ rights.”