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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)