Clarence Thomas breaks with conservatives to rule against racial gerrymandering

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled today that Republicans in two districts of North Carolina took race into consideration when drawing district boundaries in an attempt to diminish the influence of black voters. Election experts say the decision is likely to boost the prospects for success in similar challenges across the South.

The Republican-controlled North Carolina state Legislature redrew the district lines after the 2010 census.

Tom Ross, the former president of the University of North Carolina system who now works with a nonprofit trying to restore trust in government, told The News & Observer's Anne Blythe Monday that political gerrymandering has helped to erode that trust and that the solution is to amend our state constitution to establish an independent redistricting process.

North Carolina officials said they were trying to preserve black majorities and comply with the Voting Rights Act, the landmark 1965 law created to protect racial minorities.

"It's abundantly clear that what the state of North Carolina did in drawing its legislative districts can not withstand constitutional muster", Anita Earls of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice said in a phone interview.

A three-judge panel in the federal court later struck down the two districts.

At the time, a lower court had ruled that the Legislature's main motive in drawing the district was to increase the number of black voters there; the Supreme Court disagreed, in part because the challengers could not produce an "alternative map" that could serve the same political goal "without producing the same racial effects".

Representatives for the Senate committee's Republican chairman, Richard Burr of North Carolina, and ranking Democrat, Mark Warner of Virginia, didn't immediately respond to calls and emails inquiring about the committee's next steps. With its five public and several private historically black campuses extended throughout the state, North Carolina could once again become a powerful national example of HBCU advocacy in state governance.

Justice Clarence Thomas joined the four liberal justices to form a majority. The lower court rejected this argument.

The request from the district court in San Antonio for new filings in the wake of the North Carolina decision confirmed the potential impact of the ruling. Republicans there make up just 30 percent of registered voters, and yet the party holds 10 of the state's 13 House seats. In recent years, observes UC's Hasen, the sides have flipped. Two decades ago, Democrats used the law to demand so-called "majority-minority" districts. There are, roughly, two types of gerrymandering that come before the court: Gerrymandering by political party, and gerrymandering by race. And that case is now pending before the Supreme Court.

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Both of those districts are represented by Democrats; Rep.

Some Republicans and Democrats reportedly had differing opinions on the legality and fairness of the ruling. During redistricting, the GOP increased those pluralities to majorities, claiming alternately that the Voting Rights Act forced them to do so (in the case of the 1st) or that they'd ignored race entirely and only considered partisan preferences in the 12th (something that is still permissible).

But even if he's right, what about states in which legal challenges to partisan gerrymandering can't be comfortably couched in racial terms? In 1993, the court said that partisanship is permissible but redistricting based on race is not. That followed a decision against Alabama's state legislative districts in 2015. Therefore, it was an illegal racial gerrymander. That potentially landmark trial begins June 26 at a federal courthouse in Greensboro and might be the key to stopping partisan gerrymandering once and for all.

  • Aubrey Nash