SCOTUS Upholds Decision Finding Gerrymandering in North Carolina Was Racially Motivated

May 22, 2017
Today, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling that North Carolina engaged in unconstitutional racial gerrymandering when it packed African-American voters into two congressional districts.

This case — Cooper v. Harris — arises out of North Carolina’s appeal of a three-judge panel decision that struck down the state’s 2011 congressional redistricting scheme after the court found that racial considerations predominantly motivated the boundaries of the First and Twelfth Congressional Districts.

This morning, the Supreme Court issued its opinion in the case, rejecting the state’s appeal and affirming that race was used impermissibly to configure the two districts.

In affirming the trial court’s decision, the Court rebuffed North Carolina’s attempt to erect formalistic doctrinal barriers to racial gerrymandering claims, like its effort to have the question of intent turn on things like the shape of districts or whether towns or precincts were split.

Michael Li, Senior Counsel with the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program said, “Today’s ruling is a strong warning that states can’t cloak impermissible intent behind narrow talismanic tests about shapes or ‘traditional districting criteria.’ That’s an especially important lesson in an age where computers make it easier than ever to draw nice looking districts that nonetheless are hugely discriminatory.”

The Court also made clear that even if the legislature’s ultimate goal was to entrench partisan advantage, that would not save it from invalidation as a racial gerrymander.   The Court explained that “[t]he sorting of voters on grounds of their race remains suspect even if race is meant to function as a proxy for other … characteristics, including political (ones).” 

“The Court made clear that racial gerrymandering is impermissible even if motivated by a desire to seek partisan advantage,” said Wendy Weiser, Director of the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program. “That is a very significant step forward.”

Before oral argument, the Brennan Center filed an amicus brief in the case arguing that the broader political and legislative context for the 2011 congressional redistricting strongly suggested that impermissible racial considerations played a predominant role in the legislative map-drawing process.  The Supreme Court made clear that the question of whether or not racial considerations are ‘predominant’ in redistricting is a factual question and that courts can look to a broad range of evidence to resolve it.

Read more about the Brennan Center’s work on redistricting.

For more information or to schedule an interview, contact Blaire Perel at (646) 925-8734 or