Shaw v. Reno, 509 U.S. 630; 113 S. Ct. 2816; 125 L. Ed. 2d 511 (1993)

Facts—After the 1990 census, North Carolina became entitled to a twelfth seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. After the U.S. attorney general objected to a plan that included only one predominately black district, the state created a second with irregularly shaped boundaries that snaked for much of its length along Interstate 85. A three-judge U.S. District Court rejected claims that the district violated Article I and the Fourteenth Amendment.

Question—Do voters have the right to challenge state officials over apportionment of a congressional district on the basis that the district constitutes a racial gerrymander?


ReasonsJ. O’Connor (5–4). Reynolds v. Sims (1964) indicated that “The right to vote freely for the candidate of one’s choice is the essence of a democratic society.” The North Carolina plan in this case closely “resembles the most egregious racial gerrymanders of the past.” The Court has not required a completely color-blind Constitution, but it has insisted on giving strict scrutiny to racial classifications. The Fourteenth Amendment was designed to prevent discrimination on the basis of race, and racial classifications are “presumptively invalid.” O’Connor argued that “reapportionment is one area in which appearances do matter.” The district in question “bears an uncomfortable resemblance to political apartheid.” Such districting is likely to send the message that the primary obligation of representatives “is to represent the members of the group, rather than their constituency as a whole.” It is also likely to reinforce racial stereotypes and to “balkanize us into competing voting factions.”

J. White’s dissent argued that the Court sidestepped its decision in United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburgh, Inc. v. Carey (1977), where it had upheld a gerrymander that benefited Hasidic Jews. White did not believe that North Carolina’s action had deprived anyone of the right to vote so he believed that there were no parties with a real injury. He argued that the Court was too concerned with the appearances of the district. If the majority were seeking a “compelling interest,” it would have to look no further than North Carolina’s desire to comply with provisions of the Voting Rights Act. In his dissent, J. Blackmun argued that “the conscious use of race in redistricting does not violate the Equal Protection Clause unless the redistricting plan denied a particular group equal access to the political process or to minimize its voting strength unduly.” J. Stevens’s dissent questioned the majority’s assumption that the Constitution imposed “contiguity or compactness” requirements on state configurations of district lines. He did not believe that unusually shaped districts were unconstitutional when they were designed to facilitate rather than to hinder minority race power. J. Souter’s dissent also saw no reason to give strict scrutiny to such districts. He argued that past cases had not prevented others from taking racial considerations into account as long as such considerations did not adversely affect others: “the mere placement of an individual in one district instead of another denies no one a right or benefit provided to others.”

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