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Dickson v. Rucho

Dickson v. Rucho is a state-court suit that challenges numerous districts in North Carolina’s 2011 legislative and congressional maps as unconstitutional racial gerrymanders.

Published: January 4, 2019

Note: The Bren­nan Center is not a parti­cipant in this case.

Case Back­ground

Dick­son v. Rucho origin­ated in claims that North Caro­lin­a’s 2011 legis­lat­ive and congres­sional maps viol­ated federal and state law by racially gerry­man­der­ing districts, split­ting counties, and disreg­ard­ing tradi­tional redis­trict­ing prin­ciples. The plaintiffs argue that the North Caro­lina General Assembly relied too heav­ily on race to create its 2011 maps. Accord­ing to the plaintiffs, two aspects of the General Assembly’s approach are partic­u­larly prob­lem­atic: first, the legis­lature used a racial propor­tion­al­ity target in order to determ­ine the number of major­ity-minor­ity districts that it would draw; and, second, it required that each such district meet a fixed 50% black voting age popu­la­tion (BVAP) target, without refer­en­cing any data regard­ing the extent to which African-Amer­ican voters could elect their candid­ates of choice. Using these rules, the legis­lature created 9 senate seats, 23 house seats, and 2 congres­sional seats that were major­ity black, a signi­fic­ant increase from past maps.

The plaintiffs chal­lenged 30 of the new districts. In 2013, a state trial court ruled that 26 of the 30—the so-called the “VRA districts”—had been drawn predom­in­ately on the basis of race, but were nonethe­less consti­tu­tional because the state’s asser­ted interest in avoid­ing Section 2 liab­il­ity and secur­ing Section 5 preclear­ance was a compel­ling one and the state’s use of a “bright line rule” to avoid a perceived threat of VRA liab­il­ity was narrowly tailored. The trial court also ruled that race did not predom­in­ate in the other chal­lenged districts and that the maps did not viol­ate the law by split­ting counties or disreg­ard­ing tradi­tional redis­trict­ing prin­ciples.

The North Caro­lina Supreme Court ruled in a subsequent 4–2 decision that the trial court had not made adequate find­ings of fact to conclude that the “VRA districts” were drawn predom­in­ately based on race. However, the court determ­ined the error was harm­less because the districts were able to survive strict scru­tiny, and affirmed the trial court’s judg­ment. The North Caro­lina Supreme Court agreed with the trial court that comply­ing with the VRA was a compel­ling interest for the legis­lature when draw­ing its maps. The court further concluded that draw­ing major­ity-minor­ity districts with 50%-plus BVAP and creat­ing major­ity-minor­ity districts to ensure propor­tion­ate repres­ent­a­tion were safe harbors from VRA liab­il­ity, so maps that followed these meth­ods were narrowly tailored. The North Caro­lina Supreme Court also affirmed the lower court’s rulings on the other, “non-VRA” districts, as well as its rulings on the plaintiffs’ claims regard­ing county-split­ting and devi­ations from tradi­tional redis­trict­ing prin­ciples.

The plaintiffs appealed the state supreme court’s ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, which vacated the opin­ion below, and remanded the case for further consid­er­a­tion in light of Alabama Legis­lat­ive Black Caucus v. Alabama. On remand, North Caro­lin­a’s Supreme Court again affirmed the trial court’s rulings, on largely similar bases as it had previ­ously. Most import­antly, the court concluded that, because each VRA district “was created because the State had a compel­ling interest in compl[ying] with [S]ection 2, and each was narrowly tailored to accom­plish that goal,” each district was consti­tu­tional regard­less of what Section 5 might demand.

The plaintiffs filed a second peti­tion for certi­or­ari with the U.S. Supreme Court, asking the Court to determ­ine, among other issues, whether Section 2 requires a juris­dic­tion to draw a racially propor­tion­ate number of major­ity-black legis­lat­ive districts each with a BVAP of more than 50%. 

On May 30, 2017 the Supreme Court vacated the decision of the North Caro­lina Supreme Court and remanded the case for further consid­er­a­tion in light of the Supreme Court’s decision in Cooper v. Harris

In turn, the North Caro­lina Supreme Court remanded the case to the Wake County Super­ior Court to determ­ine whether the case is now moot in light of Cooper v. Harris and North Caro­lina v. Coving­ton, whether there are other issues that require resol­u­tion, and whether other relief would be proper.

On Febru­ary 11, 2018 the Wake County Super­ior Court entered a judg­ment in the case stat­ing that chal­lenged districts in the 2011 congres­sional and legis­lat­ive plan were uncon­sti­tu­tional but hold­ing that no further remedy could be offered by the court since the 2011 maps had already been redrawn. The court declared all of the plaintiffs’ remain­ing claims moot. 

The legis­lat­ive defend­ants filed a notice of appeal on March 14 seek­ing review by the North Caro­lina Supreme Court. On Janu­ary 4, 2019, the Court gran­ted the legis­lat­ive defend­ants’ motion to dismiss the appeal.


North Caro­lina Supreme Court

U.S. Supreme Court

North Caro­lina Supreme Court (on remand)

Wake County Super­ior Court 

North Caro­lina Supreme Court (on appeal)