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  Vernellia R. Randall
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The University of Dayton
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A badly fractured Supreme Court ruled 5-4 on Monday that the North Carolina General Assembly was wrong to draw a state legislative voting district in a way that violates state law.

The state’s constitution bars dividing counties into different legislative districts. The legislature said it had to draw a state district in such a way in order not to run afoul of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.

But the plurality opinion in Bartlett v. Strickland, by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy , rejected that argument.

One of the affected jurisdictions, Pender County, challenged the legality of the district. As drawn by the state legislature, African-Americans comprise 39 percent of the district’s voters. If drawn in such a way as to leave Pender County intact, the district would have an African-American voting age population of 35 percent.

Kennedy rejected the legislature’s Voting Rights Act defense under the first part of a three-part test the high court established for Section 2 liability in a 1986 case, Thornburg v. Gingles, that the minority voter group “is sufficiently large and geographically compact to constitute a majority in a single-member district.”

“Section 2 does not guarantee minority voters an electoral advantage,” Kennedy wrote. “Minority groups in crossover districts cannot form a voting majority without crossover voters. In those districts minority voters have the same opportunity to elect their candidate as any other political group with the same relative voting strength.”

Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy , D-Vt., blasted what he called Kennedy’s “cramped reading” of the Voting Rights Act.

“As Congress reaffirmed in its recent nearly unanimous reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act, this landmark law is meant to continue the historic expansion of inclusion and openness in our democracy,” Leahy said. “The Supreme Court’s decision today is a step in the wrong direction.”

Only the court’s two newest members, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. , joined Kennedy’s opinion. In a separate opinion concurring in the judgment, Justice Clarence Thomas , joined by Justice Antonin Scalia , argued that the whole case was a dangerous overreading of the Voting Rights Act.

“The text of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 does not authorize any vote dilution claim, regardless of the size of the minority population in a given district,” Thomas wrote.

The court’s liberal bloc of justices banded together in a dissent by David H. Souter .

“The object of the Voting Rights Act will now be promoting racial blocs, and the role of race in districting decisions as a proxy for political identification will be heightened by any measure,” Souter wrote.



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