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Mon, 06.28.1993

Shaw v. Reno Ruled by Supreme Court

*On this date in1993, the United States Supreme Court ruled on Shaw v Reno. The Supreme Court's position in this case was a troubled compromise on the issue of race and political redistricting.

The ruling did not provide clear rules for application of its appearance-based test for violations of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. On the issue of compassionate race-conscious state actions that may propose to increase minority involvement in the political process, the Court appears to say that some benign discrimination is acceptable, but don’t be too obvious and expose the purposes of the irregular districting. The Court accepted race as one factor in decision-making, but not the lone factor. In a democratic society, the purpose of voting is to allow the electors to select their governors. Argued on April 20, 1993, the appeal came from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina.

To comply with 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 - which prohibits a covered jurisdiction from implementing changes in a "standard, practice, or procedure with respect to voting" without federal authorization - North Carolina submitted to the Attorney General a congressional reapportionment plan with one majority-Black district. The Attorney General objected to the plan because a second district could have been created to give effect to minority voting strength in the State's south-central to southeastern region. The State's revised plan contained a second majority-Black district in the north-central region.

The new district stretched approximately 160 miles along Interstate 85 and, for much of its length, is no wider than the highway. Appellants, five North Carolina residents, filed this action against appellee state and federal officials, were claiming that the State had created an unconstitutional racial gerrymander in violation of, among other things, the Fourteenth Amendment. They alleged that the two districts concentrated a majority of Black voters arbitrarily without regard to considerations such as compactness, contiguousness, geographical boundaries, or political subdivisions, in order to create congressional districts along racial lines and to assure the election of two Black representatives.

Argued on April 20th of that year, the three-judge District Court held that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction over the federal appellees. It also dismissed the complaint against the state appellees, finding, among other things, that, under United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburgh, Inc. v. Carey, 430 U.S. 144 (UJO), appellants had failed to state an equal protection claim because favoring minority voters was not discriminatory in the constitutional sense, and the plan did not lead to proportional under representation of white voters statewide. [509 U.S. 630, 2]

Yes. The Court held that although North Carolina's reapportionment plan was racially neutral on its face, the resulting district shape was bizarre enough to suggest that it constituted an effort to separate voters into different districts based on race. The unusual district, while perhaps created by noble intentions, seemed to exceed what was reasonably necessary to avoid racial imbalances.  After concluding that the residents' claim did give rise to an equal protection challenge, the Court remanded - adding that in the absence of contradictory evidence, the District Court would have to decide whether or not some compelling governmental interest justified North Carolina's plan.

Fordham University

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Poetry Corner

There is music in me, the music of a peasant people. I wander through the levee, picking my banjo and singing my songs of the cabin and the field. At last... THE BANJO PLAYER by Fenton Johnson.
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