Legal battles over gerrymandering and redistricting have been routine since the Voting Rights Act was first passed in 1965. As political parties have gotten better at using data for redistricting, the practice has become both a science and an art – and a point of contention. By redrawing Congressional districts according to preexisting political tendencies, political parties can make reelection campaigns much easier. Additionally, there is historical precedent to use gerrymandering to suppress minority votes. There is, therefore, a lot at stake.
One case that was seminal in establishing the rules that govern such redistricting efforts is Shaw v. Reno. In this 1993 case, the Supreme Court held that a redistricting plan with bizarrely shaped districts may indicate racial gerrymandering, and accordingly should receive strict scrutiny by the courts. This means unusually shaped Congressional districts can be more likely to be struck down by courts as unconstitutional.
The Background and Facts of the Case
Shaw v. Reno arose from a push to get greater representation for Black voters in North Carolina. In 1993, about 20% of the state population identified as Black. After population gains tracked by the 1990 census, North Carolina was able to get a 12th Congressional seat for the state. The State Assembly wanted this 12th seat to be a majority-minority district.
North Carolina redrew the Congressional districts twice. The first time, it was rejected by U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno as violating the Voting Rights Act, since there was only one “minority-majority" district. The Attorney General felt that a second district was needed to better represent the Native American population in the state, among other concerns. North Carolina submitted a second congressional reapportionment plan to comply with the Attorney General's suggestions. The result was a “snake-like" district that travelled along the I-85 corridor and cut through five counties. Several white residents, including Durham County resident Richard Shaw, challenged this second redistricting effort in court, alleging it violated white residents' Equal Protection rights.
Unlike previous cases, the issue wasn't whether the state was trying to suppress Black votes, which the VRA was designed to protect against. Instead, it was whether the state could redraw Congressional districts primarily due to alleged racial considerations, even though the state's plan was racially neutral on its face.
The Voting Rights Act
The Voting Rights Act, passed into law in 1965, prohibited many of the voter suppression tactics that predominated in the South at the time. After it became law, redistricting had to comply with the VRA. In 1982 Congress amended the VRA to prohibit “vote dilution", a term for redistricting in a way to lower the impact of minority voters by spreading out their vote.
Under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, redistricting plans and other voting procedures cannot discriminate on the basis of race, color or membership in a language minority group. Any affected American citizen, and the U.S. government, can file a lawsuit alleging that redistricting violates Section 2.
A Quick Note About Strict Scrutiny
An understanding of strict scrutiny is needed to fully grasp the legal question in Shaw v. Reno. Strict scrutiny is a form of judicial review that courts often use when analyzing an Equal Protection claim. Under this review, the government must show it had a “compelling governmental interest" in passing the law and that it was “narrowly tailored" to achieve the government's goal in the least restrictive way possible. It's the highest standard of review courts use. While not every law that receives strict scrutiny is unconstitutional, it makes it a much more difficult case for the government.
Summary of the Arguments
The question before the Supreme Court was whether the North Carolina's oddly shaped redistricting effort deserved strict scrutiny under the Fourteenth Amendment despite being racially neutral on its face. In other words, did North Carolina need to justify it's plan by showing a “compelling governmental interest" that was narrowly tailored to its goals, despite nowhere mentioning race in its rationale?
The Supreme Court's Decision In Shaw v. Reno
The Supreme Court held that when a Congressional reapportionment plan is “so highly irregular that, on its face, it rationally cannot be understood as anything other than an effort to segregate voters on the basis of race" courts must view that plan under strict scrutiny. This is true even when, as was the case here, the redistricting plan was racially neutral on its face.
The Supreme Court therefore sent the case back down to district court to determine whether North Carolina's reapportionment plan could survive strict scrutiny. On remand, the district court found that it could not. Interestingly, the district court's determination was again appealed to the Supreme Court, which decided the issue in Shaw v.Hunt. There, the Court held that North Carolina's reapportionment plan could not survive strict scrutiny and the plan for the 12th district was finally scrapped.
The decision was 5-4, with the conservative Justices siding with the white resident plaintiffs in finding that the plan deserved strict scrutiny.
Shaw v. Reno Set A Precedent
Redistricting has been fought at length in the courts, particularly when there are allegations of racial gerrymandering. This was not the first, nor last, case to tackle the subject. But it was important in setting the precedent for how courts should review “bizarrely shaped" districts. In such cases there is a strong indication of racial intent in the plan and courts will often review under strict scrutiny. The case is also interesting for the racial considerations involved. Unlike the historical use of racially gerrymandered districts, here the goal was to comply with a federal law specifically geared toward stopping vote dilution for minority voters.
Just two years later, in Miller v. Johnson, the Supreme Court again took up the issue of racial gerrymandering. In that case, the Supreme Court held that a district is unconstitutional if race is a predominant factor in how its lines are drawn. A year after that, in Bush v. Vera, the Supreme Court held that race is not a proxy for political affiliation. These cases all relied on some extent to the decision in Shaw v. Reno.
Legal Challenges Still Routine
The issue of racial gerrymandering continues to be litigated in courts. In 2013, for example, the Supreme Court's decision in Shelby County v. Holder held that Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act no longer applies, so states seeking to redraw Congressional districts were free to undertake reapportionment plans without needing to submit it to the Attorney General for review. The Supreme Court did not hold, however, that racially gerrymandered districts were constitutional, so the Supreme Court can still hear challenges from affected voters alleging a violation of their Equal Protection Rights.
You can read the full decision in Shaw v. Reno on FindLaw.