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