In a key victory for the voting rights community, a unanimous Supreme Court held in Harris v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission that a good faith effort to comply with the Voting Rights Act is a legitimate governmental goal in redistricting. The Court also strongly reaffirmed longstanding rules on the discretion of states to vary the size of districts to meet certain goals.
A group of Republican voters had challenged Arizona’s 2011 statehouse map, contending that the decision to underpopulate certain Latino majority districts in order to avoid diminishing Latino political power violated the Constitution’s “one person, one vote” doctrine. The plaintiffs also contended that some of the map’s boundary choices deliberately advantaged Democrats.
The Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, which drew the map, agreed the map purposefully underpopulated some Latino districts but denied that it had done so with partisan motivation. Instead, the commission said underpopulating the districts was the only way to guarantee that Latinos could continue to elect their community’s preferred candidates — something the state would have been required to show in order to obtain Justice Department approval of the plan under a now-defunct preclearance provision of the Voting Rights Act.
In rejecting the challenge, the opinion by Justice Stephen Breyer not only accepted Voting Rights Act compliance as a “legitimate state interest” but noted that the population variance in Arizona’s state house map of 8.8 percent was within the 10 percent size difference (deviation) long permitted by the Court. That 10 percent rule, he said, created a strong presumption of constitutionality.While Justice Breyer said that future plaintiffs could challenge plans with a deviation of less than 10 percent, they would need to “show that it is more probable than not that a deviation of less than 10% reflects the predominance of illegitimate reapportionment factors than… ‘legitimate considerations.’” However, those challenges would be hard, the Court warned, “[g]iven the inherent difficulty of measuring and comparing factors that may legitimately account for small deviations from strict mathematical equality” and “will succeed rarely, in unusual cases.”
The case is the third high-stakes redistricting case decided unanimously by the Court this term. Earlier this month, the Supreme Court in Evenwel v. Abbott upheld Texas’s use of total population in drawing districts. Last December, in Shapiro v. McManus, one of Justice Antonin Scalia’s final opinions, the Court kept alive a partisan gerrymandering challenge to Maryland’s congressional plan.