The inquiry under § 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, 42 U.S.C.S. § 1973c as to the legality of a reapportionment plan focuses ultimately on the position of racial minorities with respect to their effective exercise of the electoral franchise, the percentage of eligible voters by district is of great importance to that inquiry.
The State of New York submitted its 1972 reapportionment plan for certain counties to the United States Attorney General under 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Attorney General concluded that as to certain state legislature districts in Kings County, the state had failed to demonstrate under 5 that the redistricting had neither the purpose nor the effect of abridging the right to vote by reason of race or color. Thereafter, the state submitted a revised plan which did not change the number of districts with nonwhite majorities, but which changed the size of nonwhite majorities in most of such districts. Under the revised plan, a community of Hasidic Jews that had been previously located in a single assembly district with a 61% nonwhite majority and a single senate district with only 37% nonwhites, was divided between different election districts having 65% nonwhite majorities - the state having concluded that a 65% nonwhite majority was necessary to obtain the Attorney General's approval as to such districts. Shortly after the revised redistricting plan had been submitted to the Attorney General, an action on behalf of the Hasidic Jewish community was instituted in the United States District Court by the United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburgh, Inc. and other Jewish organizations. The plaintiffs alleged that the state's use of racial criteria and quotas in developing the revised reapportionment plan violated the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendment rights of the members of the Jewish community. The District Court dismissed the complaint and on appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed the District Court’s dismissal.
Did the state’s use of racial criteria and quotas in developing the revised reapportionment plan violate the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendment rights of the members of the Jewish community?
According to the Court, compliance with 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which governed new or revised reapportionment plans of covered states, often necessitated the use of racial considerations in drawing district lines. The Court further posited that the Constitution did not prevent a state subject to the Act from deliberately creating or preserving black majorities in particular districts in order to ensure that its reapportionment plan complied with 5. The Court noted that under the Act, the use of racial criteria in districting was not confined to remedying past unconstitutional apportionments, and neither the Fourteenth Amendment nor the Fifteenth Amendment mandated any per se rule against using racial factors in districting and apportionment. Furthermore, under 5 of the Act, a reapportionment did not violate the Fourteenth or Fifteenth Amendments merely because a state used specific numerical quotas in establishing a certain number of black majority districts. According to the Court, the plaintiffs in the case at bar had not shown, or offered to prove, that New York had done more than accede to a position taken by the Attorney General that was authorized by the constitutionally permissible construction of 5 as not permitting the implementation of a reapportionment that would lead to a retrogression in the position of racial minorities with respect to their effective exercise of the electoral franchise. More importantly, the Court held that aside from New York's obligation under the Voting Rights Act to preserve minority voting strength in the county, neither the Fourteenth Amendment nor the Fifteenth Amendment was infringed by the state's drawing district lines deliberately in such a way that the percentage of districts with a nonwhite majority (30%) roughly approximated the percentage of nonwhites in the county (35%), since the revised plan represented no racial slur or stigma with respect to whites or any other race, and since the plan neither minimized white voting strength, nor deprived whites in the county, as a group, of fair representation, nor fenced out the white population from participating in the political processes of the county as a whole.