Bethune-Hill v. Virginia State Board of Elections
580 US ___ (2017)

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Justia Opinion Summary

After the 2010 census, the Virginia Legislature drew new lines for 12 state legislative districts, to ensure that each district would have a black voting-age population of at least 55%. Voters challenged the redistricting under the Equal Protection Clause. As to 11 districts, the district court concluded that the voters had not shown that race was the predominant factor motivating the legislature’s decision, reasoning that race predominates only where there is an “actual conflict between traditional redistricting criteria and race.” As to District 75, the court found that race did predominate, but the use of race was narrowly tailored to a compelling state interest--avoiding violation of the Voting Rights Act. The Supreme Court vacated in part, stating that the proper inquiry concerns the actual considerations that provided the essential basis for the lines drawn, not post hoc justifications. A legislature could construct a plethora of potential maps that look consistent with traditional, race-neutral principles, but if race is the overriding reason for choosing a map, race still may predominate. Challengers may establish racial predominance without evidence of an actual conflict. A holistic analysis is necessary to give the proper weight to districtwide evidence, such as stark splits in the racial composition of populations moved into and out of a district, or the use of a racial target. The judgment regarding District 75 is consistent with the basic narrow tailoring analysis; the state’s interest in complying with the Voting Rights Act was a compelling interest and the legislature had sufficient grounds to determine that the race-based calculus it employed was necessary to avoid violating the Act.

NOTE: Where it is feasible, a syllabus (headnote) will be released, as is being done in connection with this case, at the time the opinion is issued.The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader.See United States v. Detroit Timber & Lumber Co., 200 U. S. 321 .

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES

Syllabus

BETHUNE-HILL et al. v. VIRGINIA STATE BOARD OF ELECTIONS et al.

on appeal from the united states district court for the eastern district of virgina

No. 15–680. Argued December 5, 2016—Decided March 1, 2017

After the 2010 census, the Virginia State Legislature drew new lines for 12 state legislative districts, with a goal of ensuring that each district would have a black voting-age population (BVAP) of at least 55%. Certain voters filed suit, claiming that the new districts violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. State legislative officials (State) intervened to defend the plan. A three-judge District Court rejected the challenges. As to 11 of the districts, the court concluded that the voters had not shown, as this Court’s precedent requires, “that race was the predominant factor motivating the legislature’s decision to place a significant number of voters within or without a particular district,” Miller v. Johnson, 515 U. S. 900 . In so doing, the court held that race predominates only where there is an “ ‘actual conflict between traditional redistricting criteria and race.’ ” 141 F. Supp. 3d 505, 524. It thus confined the predominance analysis to the portions of the new lines that appeared to deviate from traditional criteria. As to the remaining district, District 75, the court found that race did predominate, but that the lines were constitutional because the legislature’s use of race was narrowly tailored to a compelling state interest. In particular, the court found the legislature had good reasons to believe that a 55% racial target was necessary in District 75 to avoid diminishing the ability of black voters to elect their preferred candidates, which at the time would have violated §5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, see Alabama Legislative Black Caucus v. Alabama, 575 U. S. ___, ___.

Held:

1. The District Court employed an incorrect legal standard in determining that race did not predominate in 11 of the 12 districts. Pp. 6–13.

(a) The Equal Protection Clause prohibits a State, without sufficient justification, from “separat[ing] its citizens into different voting districts on the basis of race.” Miller, 515 U. S., at 911. Courts must “exercise extraordinary caution in adjudicating claims” of racial gerrymandering, id., at 916, since a legislature is always “aware of race when it draws district lines, just as it is aware of . . . other demographic factors,” Shaw v. Reno, 509 U. S. 630 (Shaw I). A plaintiff alleging racial gerrymandering thus bears the burden “to show, either through circumstantial evidence of a district’s shape and demographics or more direct evidence going to legislative purpose, that race was the predominant factor motivating the legislature’s [districting] decision,” which requires proving “that the legislature subordinated traditional race-neutral districting principles . . . to racial considerations.” Miller, supra, at 916. Here, the District Court misapplied controlling law in two principal ways. Pp. 6–7.

(b) First, the District Court misunderstood relevant precedents when it required the challengers to establish, as a prerequisite to showing racial predominance, an actual conflict between the enacted plan and traditional redistricting principles. This Court has made clear that parties may show predominance “either through circumstantial evidence of a district’s shape and demographics or more direct evidence going to legislative purpose,” Miller, supra, at 916, and that race may predominate even when a plan respects traditional principles, Shaw v. Hunt, 517 U. S. 899 (Shaw II).

The State’s theory in this case is irreconcilable with Miller and Shaw II. The State insists, e.g., that the harm from racial gerrymandering lies not in racial line-drawing per se but in grouping voters of the same race together when they otherwise lack shared interests. But “the constitutional violation” in racial gerrymandering cases stems from the “racial purpose of state action, not its stark manifestation.” Miller, supra, at 913. The State also contends that race does not have a prohibited effect on a district’s lines if the legislature could have drawn the same lines in accordance with traditional criteria. The proper inquiry, however, concerns the actual considerations that provided the essential basis for the lines drawn, not post hoc justifications that the legislature could have used but did not. A legislature could construct a plethora of potential maps that look consistent with traditional, race-neutral principles, but if race is the overriding reason for choosing one map over others, race still may predominate. A conflict or inconsistency may be persuasive circumstantial evidence tending to show racial predomination, but no rule requires challengers to present this kind of evidence in every case. As a practical matter, this kind of evidence may be necessary in many or even most cases. But there may be cases where challengers can establish racial predominance without evidence of an actual conflict. Pp. 7–11.

(c) The District Court also erred in considering the legislature’s racial motive only to the extent that the challengers identified deviations from traditional redistricting criteria attributable to race and not to some other factor. Racial gerrymandering claims proceed “district-by-district,” Alabama, supra, at ___, and courts should not divorce any portion of a district’s lines—whatever their relationship to traditional principles—from the rest of the district. Courts may consider evidence pertaining to an area that is larger or smaller than the district at issue. But the ultimate object of the inquiry is the legislature’s predominant motive for the district’s design as a whole, and any explanation for a particular portion of the lines must take account of the districtwide context. A holistic analysis is necessary to give the proper weight to districtwide evidence, such as stark splits in the racial composition of populations moved into and out of a district, or the use of a racial target. Pp. 11–12.

(d) The District Court is best positioned to determine on remand the extent to which, under the proper standard, race directed the shape of these 11 districts, and if race did predominate, whether strict scrutiny is satisfied. Pp. 12–13.

2. The District Court’s judgment regarding District 75 is consistent with the basic narrow tailoring analysis explained in Alabama. Where a challenger succeeds in establishing racial predominance, the burden shifts to the State to “demonstrate that its districting legislation is narrowly tailored to achieve a compelling interest.” Miller, supra, at 920. Here, it is assumed that the State’s interest in complying with the Voting Rights Act was a compelling interest. When a State justifies the predominant use of race in redistricting on the basis of the need to comply with the Voting Rights Act, “the narrow tailoring requirement insists only that the legislature have a ‘strong basis in evidence’ in support of the (race-based) choice that it has made.” Alabama, 575 U. S., at ___–___. The State must show not that its action was actually necessary to avoid a statutory violation, but only that the legislature had “ ‘good reasons to believe’ ” its use of race was needed in order to satisfy the Voting Rights Act. Ibid. There was no error in the District Court’s conclusion that the legislature had sufficient grounds to determine that the race-based calculus it employed in District 75 was necessary to avoid violating §5. Under the facts found by that court, the legislature performed the kind of functional analysis of District 75 necessary under §5, and the result reflected the good-faith efforts of legislators to achieve an informed bipartisan consensus. In contesting the sufficiency of that evidence and the evidence justifying the 55% BVAP floor, the challengers ask too much from state officials charged with the sensitive duty of reapportioning legislative districts. As to the claim that the BVAP floor is akin to the “mechanically numerical view” of §5 rejected in Alabama, supra, at ___, the record here supports the State’s conclusion that this was an instance where a 55% BVAP was necessary for black voters to have a functional working majority. Pp. 13–16.

141 F. Supp. 3d 505, affirmed in part, vacated in part, and remanded.

Kennedy, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Roberts, C. J., and Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan, JJ., joined. Alito, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment. Thomas, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment in part and dissenting in part.

Primary Holding

An analysis of whether a state acted constitutionally in drawing lines for legislative districts requires considering the actual considerations that were the basis for the lines drawn rather than the state's post hoc justifications for the lines.

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