On Monday the Supreme Court announced that it would hear a challenge to Virginia’s Republican-drawn state House of Delegates districts in a case that could have far-reaching effects. Plaintiffs in that case contend that Republican legislators violated the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause by impermissibly relying too heavily on race during the 2011 round of redistricting. Although recent similar challenges to other maps have met varying degrees of success, they haven’t yet resulted in a sweeping ruling that clarifies many unresolved issues regarding when and to what degree mapmakers can consider race.
Virginia Republicans admitted to using of a hard floor of 55 percent African-American when drawing black-majority districts. Plaintiffs argued that the use of such a mechanical threshold without justification under the Voting Rights Act had the effect of packing black voters into fewer heavily-black districts to dilute their influence in adjacent white-majority districts. The federal district court sided 2-1 in favor of Republican legislators and deemed that race did not predominate in the redistricting scheme as opposed to partisan or incumbent considerations. Now, plaintiffs are seeking a different outcome at the Supreme Court.
In 2015 the Supreme Court remanded a similar Alabama case back to the lower court after finding that the mechanical use of racial thresholds without justification was unconstitutional. Just last month the high court dismissed a challenge to a district court ruling striking down Virginia’s congressional districts, but without ruling on the merits and instead finding that Republican officeholders lacked the standing to appeal. In that case the district court struck down one majority-black district and replaced it with two districts where a substantial minority of African Americans would likely be sufficient to elect black voters’ preferred candidates.
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