The Nub of SCOTUS' Redistricting Ruling
How race as a 'predominant motive' is the central issue in North Carolina's district plans
Let’s be straightforward about this, even if North Carolina lawmakers won’t: The motive for the state’s 2011 redistricting plan, which crammed as many minority voters into as few districts as possible, was racial.
It had to be. There’s no coherent explanation for this if race wasn’t, in the most critical phrase of this issue, “the predominant motivating factor” in the district lines. Lawmakers’ goal here has always been to draw the lines according to race (and, as an inexact consequence, voter preference) while maintaining plausible deniability that they were drawing the lines according to race.
The plan had all but assured GOP dominance of North Carolina politics at least until 2020, if not beyond. But this morning, in stepped the U.S. Supreme Court, with a ruling that suddenly makes the district plan a much less sure bet.
The high court overturned the N.C. Supreme Court’s ruling from last year that upheld the redistricting, led by N.C. Sen. Bob Rucho of Matthews, and sent it back to the justices in Raleigh. The key here was another U.S. Supreme Court ruling from last year in a similar redistricting case from Alabama.
The issue boils down to this: The plaintiffs in both cases have legitimate claims of unconstitutional racial gerrymandering if they can prove lawmakers used race as the predominant factor in drawing the lines. Last year, the state Supreme Court, in effect, said it simply couldn’t tell (p. 14 of the ruling):
“Because of the trial court’s truncated findings of fact on this issue, we do not know which other factors may have influenced the creation and shape of these twenty-six [contested] districts and the extent of any such influence. As a result, we do not know whether race fairly can be described as the predominant factor in the formation of these districts …”
But in the Alabama case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that “‘predominance’ in the context of a racial gerrymandering claim is special”: in short, that what matters is which voters end up in the reapportioned districts. Lawmakers don’t have to clearly demonstrate intent, in other words; the effects can speak for themselves. Which they have.
This is no guarantee that the redistricting won’t remain in place, of course. But it’s a cause for hope when it seemed the plan was ironclad. It’ll be fun to see how the justices of the N.C. Supreme Court adjust their thinking.