WASHINGTON (CN) – The Supreme Court called for further proceedings Wednesday to decide whether Virginia lawmakers unconstitutionally redrew district lines to ensure a minimum percentage of black voters.
“It is undisputed,” the ruling notes from the outset, “that the boundary lines for the 12 districts at issue were drawn with a goal of ensuring that each district would have a black voting-age population (BVAP) of at least 55%.”
After a panel of federal judges rejected their challenge, a group of voters led by Golden Bethune-Hill took their case to the Supreme Court.
The justices were mostly unanimous Wednesday in sending the case back to U.S. District Court for another look at whether race was the predominant factor in the redistricting process.
When the District Court panel initially considered the case, it held that race predominates only where there is an “actual conflict between traditional redistricting criteria and race.”
The challengers persuaded the Supreme Court, however, that this conflict requirement misunderstood the relevant precedents.
In the 1995 case Miller v. Johnson, the high court said that parties “may rely on evidence other than bizarreness to establish race-based districting,” and may show predominance “either through circumstantial evidence of a district’s shape and demographics or more direct evidence going to legislative purpose.”
Writing for the court, Justice Anthony Kennedy said that Virginia’s theory here “is irreconcilable” with Miller and with the 1996 case Shaw v. Hunt.
Denying the challengers full relief, however, Kennedy said it is not the Supreme Court’s place to apply the correct racial-predominance standard and conclude that race predominated in all 12 districts.
In its first ruling on the case, the District Court found that race predominated in only one of the 12 districts, but that the lines were still constitutional in that district because the legislature’s use of race was narrowly tailored to a compelling state interest.
As to this district, the Supreme Court affirmed the panel’s findings in all respects.
“The record here supports the legislature’s conclusion that this was one instance where a 55% BVAP was necessary for black voters to have a functional working majority,” Kennedy wrote.
Five justices joined Alito’s opinion in full, but Justice Samuel Alito wrote a separate opinion concurring in part and concurring in judgment.
“Unlike the court, however, I would hold that all these districts must satisfy strict scrutiny,” Alito wrote.
Justice Clarence Thomas dissented in part, saying he would reverse as to all 12 districts.
“In my view, the state has neither asserted a compelling state interest nor narrowly tailored its use of race,” Thomas wrote.
The Supreme Court had consolidated oral argument of this case in December with an unrelated gerrymandering case from North Carolina. A ruling on that case remains pending.