7 minute read

Shaw v. Hunt

Further Readings

In 1996 the U.S. Supreme Court dealt a severe blow to states' attempts to create election districts containing a majority of minority voters to ensure minority representation. In Shaw v. Hunt, 517 U.S. 899, 116 S. Ct. 1894, 135 L. Ed. 2d 207, the Court ruled that the redrawing of a North Carolina congressional district into a "bizarre-looking" shape to include a majority of African Americans could not be justified by the VOTING RIGHTS ACT OF 1965 (42 U.S.C.A. § 1973c), because it violated the EQUAL PROTECTION CLAUSE of the FOURTEENTH AMENDMENT to the U.S. Constitution.

The case arose out of two disputed congressional election districts created by the North Carolina legislature following the 1990 census. North Carolina increased its congressional delegation from 11 to 12 seats in the House of Representatives. In 1991 the state legislature reapportioned the election districts and included one black-majority district. The JUSTICE DEPARTMENT, which under the Voting Rights Act must "preclear" redistricting plans, rejected it. The department found that one black-majority district was insufficient in a state where 22 percent of the population is black.

In 1992 the North Carolina legislature prepared a new plan that created two black-majority districts, the First and the Twelfth. In November 1992 Eva Clayton and Mel Watt were elected from these districts, the first blacks to represent North Carolina since 1901. However, the REPUBLICAN PARTY and five white voters challenged the two election districts in federal court. The white plaintiffs argued that the two districts amounted to unlawful racial gerrymandering.

The Twelfth District was worm-shaped, stretching 160 miles from Gastonia to Durham, hugging the thin line of Interstate 85. The district was so narrow at one point that drivers in the northbound lane of the interstate were in the district while drivers in the southbound lane were in another district. Of the ten counties through which the district passed, five were cut into three different districts, with some towns divided. The First District was hook-shaped, with fingerlike extensions. It had been compared to a "Rorschach ink-blot test" and a "bug splattered on a windshield."

A three-judge panel reviewed the claims of the plaintiffs and dismissed the case. The court ruled that the plaintiffs had failed to state an equal protection claim because favoring minority voters was not discriminatory in the constitutional sense and the plan did not lead to proportional underrepresentation of white voters statewide (808 F. Supp. 461 [E.D.N.C. 1992]).

An appeal followed to the U.S. Supreme Court (Shaw v. Reno, 509 U.S. 630, 113 S. Ct. 2816, 125 L. Ed. 2d 511 [1993]), which laid the groundwork for the Court's 1996 decision. On a 5–4 vote, the Supreme Court reversed the three-judge panel and reinstated the lawsuit, ruling that the plaintiffs did have a CAUSE OF ACTION under the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause. Justice SANDRA DAY O'CONNOR, in her majority opinion, noted the long history of court cases involving efforts by southern states to restrict voting rights for black Americans. In Gomillion v. Lightfoot, 364 U.S. 339, 81 S. Ct. 125, 5 L. Ed. 2d 110 (1960), the state of Alabama redefined the boundaries of the city of Tuskegee "from a square to an uncouth twenty-eight-sided figure" to exclude black voters from the city limits. The passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 had a dramatic effect on these kinds of practices. By the early 1970s, voter registration had significantly improved for black voters. But black voters were frustrated in their efforts to elect their candidates because of multimember or at-large districts, which diluted their votes and enabled the white majority to elect its candidates. In 1982 Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act was amended to prohibit legislation that results in the dilution of a minority's voting strength, regardless of the legislature's intent.

It was against this background that O'Connor shaped her analysis. Reviewing the two districts in dispute, she found it "unsettling how closely the North Carolina plan resembles the most egregious racial gerrymandering of the past." O'Connor agreed that prior cases had never made race-conscious redistricting "impermissible in all circumstances," yet agreed with the plaintiffs that the redistricting was "so extremely irregular on its face that it rationally can be viewed only as an effort to segregate races for purposes of voting, without regard for traditional districting principles and without sufficiently compelling justification."

Under a constitutional challenge regarding the Equal Protection Clause, legislation that involves racial classification requires a court to use the STRICT SCRUTINY standard of review. A law will be upheld under strict scrutiny if it is supported by a compelling state interest and is narrowly drawn to achieve that interest in the least restrictive manner possible. O'Connor agreed that district lines "obviously drawn for the purpose of separating voters by race" required application of the strict scrutiny standard.

In examining the districts, O'Connor held that race-based districts will be considered suspect if they disregard traditional districting principles "such as compactness, contiguity, and respect for political subdivisions." These "objective" criteria are required because in reapportionment, "appearances do matter." O'Connor stated that a reapportionment plan that draws in persons of one race from widely separated geographic and political boundaries and "who may have little in common with one another but the color of their skin, bears an uncomfortable resemblance to political apartheid." This type of redistricting reinforces "impermissible racial stereotypes" and may "exacerbate the very patterns of racial bloc voting that majority-minority districting is sometimes said to counteract."

O'Connor also characterized the redistricting plan as "pernicious," sending a message to voters that elected officials are to represent members of their voting group and not their entire constituency. For these reasons, the majority concluded that a reapportionment statute may be challenged when the plaintiffs claim that the plan is an "effort to separate voters into different districts on the basis of race, and that the separation lacks sufficient justification."

The Court remanded the case to the lower court, directing it to apply the standards articulated in the opinion to its analysis of the congressional districts. The lower-court panel ruled that the redistricting plan was narrowly tailored to serve compelling state interests and did not violate equal protection (861 F. Supp. 408 [E.D.N.C. 1994]). The plaintiffs again appealed.

In Shaw v. Hunt, the Court again split 5–4, with Chief Justice WILLIAM H. REHNQUIST writing the majority opinion that struck the redistricting plan. Compared with the first Court opinion, the decision was relatively brief and to the point. Rehnquist applied the strict scrutiny test because race was the predominant consideration in drawing the district lines. Therefore, North Carolina had to prove that its scheme was narrowly tailored to serve a compelling state interest. This burden, the majority concluded, it did not meet.

Rehnquist found the three "compelling interests" asserted by North Carolina to be lacking in merit. In addition, none was narrowly tailored. North Carolina had claimed that it had an interest in eradicating the effects of past discrimination, but the lower court had found that this interest did not precipitate the use of race in the redistricting plan. As Rehnquist noted, to prove a "compelling interest," North Carolina had to show that the alleged objective was the legislature's "actual purpose" for the redistricting plan. Therefore, the state could not assert this interest after the fact.

North Carolina also asserted a compelling interest in complying with Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, arguing that it was the state's duty to follow the mandates of the Justice Department in the preclearance process and create two rather than one black-majority districts. Rehnquist rejected this interest because the Court disagreed with the Justice Department that Section 5 requires maximizing the number of black-majority districts wherever possible. Under the legislature's original plan, it had only proposed one black-majority district. Rehnquist concluded that this maximization policy was not grounded in Section 5; therefore, no compelling interest was at stake.

Rehnquist also saw no merit in the state's argument that under section 2 of the Voting Rights Act it had a compelling interest to create a second black-majority district. North Carolina contended that failure to do so would have brought a charge under Section 2 that it was diluting minority voting strength by confining most African Americans to one district. Rehnquist found this contention misplaced because a potential Section 2 violation could only be lodged if the minority group was "geographically compact." In this case the original one-district plan was anything but compact.

In 2001 the U.S. Supreme court made a final ruling on the issue in Hunt v. Cromartie, 526 U.S. 541, 121 S.Ct. 1452, 149 L.Ed.2d 430 (2001). Here the court ruled that a largely black district is constitutional, but only if it is drawn to satisfy political, rather than racial motives.


Apportionment; Elections; Gerrymander; Voting.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1995 to Present