SCOTUS Makes Important Redistricting Ruling

The SCOTUS released another controversial 5-4 decision today in Bartlett v. Strickland.  This decision potentially opens the door to significantly less people of color serving in state legislatures once legislative redistricting commences across the nation in 2011.

Justice Kennedy was joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito, while Justice Thomas filed an opinion concurring in the judgment.  Justice Souter filed a dissenting opinion, joined by Justices Stevens, Ginsburg and Breyer. Justices Ginsburg and Breyer each filed their own dissenting opinion as well. The opinions are available here.

SCOTUSblog has this analysis:

Dividing 5-4, the Supreme Court ruled on Monday that federal voting rights law does not require the creation of a new legislative district when that would include a racial minority group that has less than 50 percent of the population, as a remedy when minority voters’ rights have been diluted.  Only when a group of minority voters would form a majority in a single-member district must it be created as a remedy under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Court ruled in Bartlett v. Strickland (07-689).

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy’s opinion decided the case, but spoke for only three of the Court’s members; he was joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., and Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr.  Justice Clarence Thomas, joined by Justice Antonin Scalia, supported only the result, arguing that “vote dilution” claims of any kind simply are not allowed under the 1965 law.

Kennedy’s plurality opinion did say that, if state legislatures wished to create a district when a minority group would have less than a 50 percent majority, federal law does not forbid that.  That is usually considered a “crossover district” because minorities, while not having a majority, are able to attract enough white voters’ support to elect their preferred candidates.

Still, Kennedy went on, the Court was not saying that legislatures could pass a law that would “entrench” a majority district in which minorities dominate; that would raise constitutional problems of its own, the opinion said.

Here’s the conclusion of Justice Souter’s powerful dissent:

In short, to the extent the plurality’s holding is taken tocontrol future results, the plurality has eliminated the protection of §2 for the districts that best vindicate the goals of the statute, and has done all it can to force theStates to perpetuate racially concentrated districts, the quintessential manifestations of race consciousness inAmerican politics.

I respectfully dissent.

This opinion is especially important as states like Rhode Island and Massachusetts begin redistricting efforts in 2011, following the 2010 census.  Remember, that in Rhode Island in 2002, a group of seven civil rights organizations filed a federal lawsuit after the state’s only African-American state senator was redistricted into a district with a Latino opponent (now, current Sen. Juan Pichardo).  The resulting settlement attempted to create a majority African-American Senate District (currently held by Sen. Harold Metts).  Will these two senate districts now survive a VRA analysis under this new decision in 2011 redistricting?

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