A group of Virginia voters are asking the U.S. Supreme Court to decide whether Virginia lawmakers impermissibly used race in creating state legislative districts in 2011.
In 2014, residents of all 12 legislative districts contested the 2011 state house map drawn by Republican political leaders, arguing that the Virginia General Assembly violated the Equal Protection Clause when lawmakers purposefully drew each legislative district with a predetermined racial target of a 55% black voting age population and did so without a Voting Rights Act justification, unconstitutionally packing African-Americans into districts. The state defendants contended that their use of a racial quota was necessary to preserve minority communities’ ability to elect their candidates of choice. The defendants also argued that the plaintiffs’ claims failed because they did not submit an alternative map that showed that the General Assembly could have achieved its neutral goals with a greater racial balance.
A federal three-judge panel agreed with the defendants, and held that race was not a primary consideration in the configuration of 11 of the 12 challenged districts, despite the legislature’s use of 55% black voting age population floor for those districts. The panel ruled that race was a predominant factor in the drawing of one of the state’s African-American districts, but the General Assembly had a compelling interest in using race in order to comply with the Voting Rights Act and did so in a narrowly tailored way. The plaintiffs appealed the court’s decision to the Supreme Court, which held oral argument this past December.
On March 1, 2017, the Supreme Court ruled in a 6-2 decision that the three-judge panel had applied the wrong legal standard to reach its conclusion that race had not predominated in the drawing of the 11 challenged districts. The Court held that the panel had improperly required plaintiffs to show, as a precondition, that a challenged district was inconsistent with traditional redistricting principles. Rather, the Court said plaintiffs in racial gerrymandering cases could establish the predominance through a variety of direct and circumstantial evidence and that, even if a district otherwise complied with traditional redistricting principles, it could still be found unconstitutional if evidence established that race was the primary factor in its creation.
The Court remanded the case to the trial court to re-evaluate the districts under the correct standard.
Key Court Documents