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Important: The Supreme Court Delivers a Major Defeat to Racial Gerrymandering

By Dustin Rowles | Politics | March 1, 2017 |

By Dustin Rowles | Politics | March 1, 2017 |

Probably the most important issue in terms of whether Democrats will ever be able to regain control of Congress or state legislatures in the coming years (given the increasing diversity of the country), is the matter of racial gerrymandering. In last year’s election, for instance, Republicans won more seats than their vote tallies suggested they should, because racial gerrymandering had the effect of diluting the black vote in some states. In other words, the Republicans got “bonus seats.” This is particularly important in a state like Virginia or North Carolina or Wisconsin, where Republican controlled state legislatures have redrawn the maps to make their seats safe from the influence of minority voters.

This morning, the Supreme Court delivered a decision on the case Bethune-Hill v. Virginia State Board of Elections, which had challenged GOP gerrymandering in Virginia. You can read the decision here, but the gist of it is this: The Supreme Court ruled that in 11 districts in Virginia, the State placed an unfair burden on the plaintiffs to prove that race was a major factor in redistricting. The State had required of the plaintiff to affirmatively prove that race was a factor, but that wasn’t necessary, because the fact that a district has more or less Black people than a traditional map might provide enough circumstantial evidence to fulfill the burden. Moreover, where race is a major factor in a decision, a state must abide by the Voting Rights Act and apply “strict scrutiny” to the decision to use race.

In other words, since race was probably used as a major factor in Virginia, the case was sent back down to the lower court, which must re-decide if race was a predominant factor (as it appears to be) based on the lower standard and, if so, show that state had a “compelling government interest” to use race as a factor in redistricting. It’s important to note here that there are occasionally legitimate reasons to separate race out for redistricting purposes, as the Court ruled that in a 12th district in Virginia — which was redistricted to ensure that 55 percent of the voters were black — appropriate racial gerrymandering was done to ensure compliance with a particular element of the Voting Rights Act.

The most important thing here is that it was a 7-1 decision (Clarence Thomas was the only holdout), meaning that even if Gorsuch is confirmed, and even if he dissents in decisions like this, the court would reconfirm by a margin of 7-2 that strict scrutiny must be applied to racial gerrymandering.

tl;dr, because this is a really boring technical decision: This is a very good decision for Democrats, and reason and common sense still seem to hold favor in our judicial branch.

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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.