The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 yesterday in a key case, Bartlett v. Strickland, in which they rejected the application of the Voting Rights Act in districts in which minorities make up at least half of the voting age population. North Carolina officials had claimed that the Act required them to create a district that included 39 percent of the Black voting age population on the ground that it would allow Black voters to join with whites to elect the candidate preferred by Blacks.
For some now the creation of these so-called “influence districts” was a point of contention in the long running battle over how best to increase minority representation in Congress. Proponents saw these districts as a way to increase the number of Black elected officials outside of majority Black districts. Opponents viewed them as an unconstitutional application of race in determining political representation. Monday’s decision by the high court resolved a question the Court had left unanswered in five previous decisions.
The case originated when county officials brought a lawsuit against the state, charging the legislative district in question violated the state’s constitution because it divided counties. State officials defended the district as necessary and required by the Voting Rights Act. The state Supreme Court then ruled that Section 2 of the Act, the anti-dilution provision, only covered districts in which minorities comprise 50 percent of the voting age population. Section 2 is vague on the point and because of that; it has been tossed around in prior cases. Monday’s decision by the Supreme Court affirms the state court ruling and now sets 50 percent as the benchmark for creating districts for the purposes of expanding minority voter representation.
Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said “Today’s plurality decision is based on a limited reading of the Act, and instead uses the guarantees of the VRA to reduce the number of districts where racial minorities are likely to be elected and to limit the ability of affected minority voters to bring claims.” Leahy also called the decision a “step in the wrong direction.”
The practical outcome of the ruling is that states will more likely draw legislative districts that are “majority-minority” and that will have a high certainty of electing Black or “minority” candidates. By doing so though, Black candidates will be less likely to run or be successful in districts in which Blacks are not the voting age majority. One of the ongoing debates has been whether the Act is necessary to give minority candidates a fighting chance, and minority voters a preference, in districts in which whites are the majority. It is the so-called “white majority districts” that have been toughest for Black candidates to crack despite sporadic success in select legislative districts.
The decision also sets the stage for a forthcoming case that will examine whether Section 5 of the Act, pertaining to the requirement to obtain “pre-clearance” before making any changes in voting procedures in certain jurisdictions. The purpose of Section 5 of the Act is to prevent states from stacking the deck by making changes in voting procedures that could discriminate against minority voters. Monday’s ruling does not invalidate the Voting Rights Act. In fact, it may serve to strengthen the constitutional argument for the case that will be heard in April.
Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Jr., and Anthony M. Kennedy, who penned the opinion, joined to form the majority. Justice David Souter offered the dissenting viewpoint.