A plaintiff alleging racial gerrymandering bears the burden to show, either through circumstantial evidence of a district’s shape and demographics or more direct evidence of legislative purpose, that race was the predominant factor motivating the legislature’s decision to place a significant number of voters inside or outside a particular district. To satisfy this burden, the plaintiff must prove that the legislature subordinated traditional race-neutral districting principles to racial considerations.
After the 2010 census, the Virginia State Legislature drew new lines for 12 state legislative districts, with a goal of ensuring that each district would have a black voting-age population (BVAP) of at least 55%. Certain voters filed suit, claiming that the new districts violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. A three-judge District Court rejected the challenges. As to 11 of the districts, the court concluded that the voters had not shown that race was the predominant factor motivating the legislature's decision to place a significant number of voters within or without a particular district. In so doing, the court held that race predominates only where there is an “actual conflict between traditional redistricting criteria and race.” As to the remaining district, District 75, the court found that race did predominate, but that the lines were constitutional because the legislature's use of race was narrowly tailored to a compelling state interest.
Was the conclusion that race did not predominate in 11 of the 12 districts correct?
The Court ruled that the District Court employed an incorrect legal standard in determining that race did not predominate in 11 of the 12 districts, hence, the conclusion that race did not predominate in 11 of the 12 districts was incorrect. First, the District Court misunderstood relevant precedents when it required the challengers to establish, as a prerequisite to showing racial predominance, an actual conflict between the enacted plan and traditional redistricting principles. Moreover, the Court held that the District Court erred in considering the legislature's racial motive only to the extent that the challengers identified deviations from traditional redistricting criteria attributable to race and not to some other factor. According to the Court, racial gerrymandering claims proceed “district-by-district,” and courts should not divorce any portion of a district's lines, whatever their relationship to traditional principles, from the rest of the district.