WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court ruled Monday that racial considerations pervaded the way North Carolina lawmakers drew congressional maps after the 2010 Census in order to maximize Republicans' advantage.
The 5-3 ruling, written by Justice Elena Kagan, was the latest in a series of decisions by the justices against the excessive use of race in redistricting, the decennial process of drawing new district lines for Congress and state legislatures.
The high court in March demanded additional lower court review of 11 Virginia state legislature districts that Republicans designed with at least 55% black voting-age populations. That followed a decision against Alabama's state legislative districts in 2015.
The North Carolina ruling upheld a federal district court decision that struck down the state's 1st and 12th congressional districts because state lawmakers had packed African American voters into them, thereby minimizing the influence of black voters in other districts. Kagan said the 1st district "produced boundaries amplifying divisions between blacks and whites," while in the 12th, "race, not politics, accounted for the district's reconfiguration."
Justice Clarence Thomas joined the court's four liberal justices in striking down the state's maps. Justice Samuel Alito dissented on the 12th district, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Anthony Kennedy. They agreed with state officials that the district was drawn to help Republicans, not to disenfranchise black voters.
"Partisan gerrymandering is always unsavory, but that is not the issue here," Alito wrote. "The issue is whether District 12 was drawn predominantly because of race. The record shows that it was not."
Alito also criticized the majority decision for failing to stand by a 2001 case in which the high court upheld a similar configuration for that district. "A precedent of this court should not be treated like a disposable household item — say, a paper plate or napkin — to be used once and then tossed in the trash," he said.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 requires that states draw districts enabling African Americans to elect their chosen representatives, lest black voters be spread too thinly across district lines. Two decades ago, Democrats used the law to demand so-called "majority-minority" districts.
Since Republicans took over many state legislatures in 2010, they have drawn districts with what African American and Democratic critics claim are more blacks than necessary, in order to keep surrounding districts whiter -- and more Republican.
“This is a watershed moment in the fight to end racial gerrymandering,” said Eric Holder, the former Democratic attorney general now chairing the National Democratic Redistricting Committee. “Today’s ruling sends a stark message to legislatures and governors around the country: Racial gerrymandering is illegal and will be struck down in a court of law.”
The North Carolina case involved two congressional districts that had come before the Supreme Court several times before. A federal district court ruled that Republican lawmakers packed more black residents into them than necessary, but the state challenged that ruling.
Those changes helped change the state's congressional delegation from 7-6 Democratic in 2010 to 10-3 Republican in 2016 -- a trend that Alito said resulted from "a coherent (and generally successful) political strategy."
Even as the justices debated the North Carolina and Virginia maps in December, another case from Wisconsin was moving their way that could give them a chance to rule on partisan, rather than racial, gerrymandering. To date, the court has not defined how much political advantage is too much.