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Law School Case Brief

Cooper v. Harris - 137 S. Ct. 1455 (2017)


A State may not use race as the predominant factor in drawing district lines unless it has a compelling reason. The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment limits racial gerrymanders in legislative districting plans. It prevents a State, in the absence of sufficient justification, from separating its citizens into different voting districts on the basis of race.

When a State invokes the Voting Rights Act of 1965, to justify race-based districting, it must show (to meet the narrow tailoring requirement of the Equal Protection Clause) that it had a strong basis in evidence for concluding that the statute required its action. Or said otherwise, the State must establish that it had good reasons to think that it would transgress the Act if it did not draw race-based district lines. That strong basis (or good reasons) standard gives States breathing room to adopt reasonable compliance measures that may prove, in perfect hindsight, not to have been needed.

Judicial precedent identifies three threshold conditions for proving vote dilution under § 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. First, a minority group must be sufficiently large and geographically compact to constitute a majority in some reasonably configured legislative district. Second, the minority group must be politically cohesive. And third, a district’s white majority must vote sufficiently as a bloc to usually defeat the minority’s preferred candidate. Those three showings are needed to establish that the minority group has the potential to elect a representative of its own choice in a possible district, but that racially polarized voting prevents it from doing so in the district as actually drawn because it is submerged in a larger white voting population. If a State has good reason to think that all the Gingles preconditions are met, then so too it has good reason to believe that § 2 requires drawing a majority-minority district. But if not, then not.


This case concerned North Carolina's redrawing of two congressional districts, District 1 and District 12, after the 2010 census. Prior to that redistricting, neither district had a majority black voting-age population (BVAP), but both consistently elected the candidates preferred by most African-American voters. The new map significantly altered both District 1 and District 12. The State needed to add almost 100,000 people to District 1 to comply with the one-person-one-vote principle, and it chose to take most of those people from heavily black areas of Durham--increasing the district's BVAP from 48.6% to 52.7%. The State also reconfigured District 12, increasing its BVAP from 43.8% to 50.7%. Registered voters in those districts (here called “the plaintiffs”) filed suit against North Carolina officials (collectively, “the State” or “North Carolina”), complaining of impermissible racial gerrymanders. A three-judge District Court held both districts unconstitutional. It found that racial considerations predominated in the drawing of District 1's lines and rejected the State's claim that this action was justified by the Voting Rights Act (VRA). As for District 12, the court again found that race predominated, and it explained that the State made no attempt to justify its attention to race in designing that district.


Did the State, in redesigning Districts 1 and 12, use race as a justification for the same, in violation of the precepts of the Constitution?




The Court applied the findings of the District Court in that race furnished the predominant rationale for the redesign of District 1, and that the State’s interest in complying with the VRA could not justify that consideration of race. The record shows that the State purposefully established a racial target for the district and that the target had a direct and significant impact on the district’s configuration, subordinating other districting criteria.

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