• Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Supreme Court held that the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment prohibits the drawing of irregularly shaped congressional districts designed to produce electoral majorities of racial and ethnic minorities.

One of the purposes of the Voting Rights Act of 1982 was to protect racial and ethnic minorities from vote dilution. After the census of 1990, the Department of Justice interpreted the act to mean that legislatures must adopt reapportionment plans that included, whenever possible, congressional districtsRedistricting with heavy concentrations of racial and ethnic minorities. Some of the resulting race-conscious districts were spread out and highly irregular in shape. In the election of 1992, these new districts helped elect an unprecedented number of African Americans to Congress.Gerrymandering;Shaw v. Hunt[Shaw v. Hunt]One person, one vote concept;Shaw v. Hunt[Shaw v. Hunt]

In North Carolina, there were two race-based districts, with one following a narrow strip of land for 160 miles. Ruth Shaw and other white voters of North Carolina filed suit, claiming that these two voting districts violated their rights under the equal protection clause. In Reno v. Shaw[case]Reno v. Shaw[Reno v. Shaw] (1993), the Supreme Court directed the federal district court to reconsider the reapportionment plan according to the strict scrutiny standard. This decision, often called Shaw I, clearly indicated that a majority of the justices did not approve of racial gerrymandering. The lower court, nevertheless, approved the districts.

In Shaw v. Hunt (also known as Shaw II), the Supreme Court reversed the lower court’s judgment. Speaking for a majority of five, Chief Justice William H. RehnquistRehnquist, William H.;Shaw v. Hunt[Shaw v. Hunt] noted that any law that classifies citizens on the basis of race is constitutionally suspect and concluded that the drawing of the two contested districts had not been narrowly tailored to further a compelling state interest. He insisted that the state’s interest in remedying the effects of past or present racial discrimination must be justified by an “identified past discrimination” rather than simply a generalized assertion of such discrimination. Also, he argued that the Justice Department’s policy of maximizing majority-black districts was not authorized by the Voting Rights Act, which said nothing about subordinating the traditional districting factors of compactness, contiguity, and respect for political subdivisions. Justice John Paul Stevens wrote a strong dissent, arguing that the white plaintiffs’ claims of harm were “rooted in speculative and stereotypical assumptions.”

In two closely related decisions, Bush v. Vera[case]Bush v. Vera[Bush v. Vera] (1996) and Abrams v. Johnson[case]Abrams v. Johnson[Abrams v. Johnson] (1997), the Court struck down race-based congressional districts in Texas and Georgia respectively. Each of these decisions was decided by a 5-4 vote, which meant that a future change in Court personnel could result in a different judgment about the controversial issue of racial gerrymandering.

Davis v. Bandemer

Equal protection clause


Race and discrimination

Representation, fairness of

Categories: History