U.S. top court backs review of Virginia voting districts in race case

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By Lawrence Hurley | WASHINGTON

WASHINGTON The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday
told a lower court in a voting rights case to reassess whether
Virginia’s Republican-led legislature unlawfully tried to dilute
the clout of black voters when it drew a series of state
legislative districts.

A group of voters who filed the legal challenge said the
lawmakers improperly considered race as a factor when mapping
boundaries of state House of Delegates voting districts. A
federal district court in 2015 upheld 12 districts, but the
justices directed a three-judge panel of the lower court to take
a fresh look at the propriety of 11 of those.

The case is one of a number of lawsuits accusing Republicans
of taking steps at the state level to disenfranchise black and
other minority voters who tend to back Democratic candidates.

The voters who brought the lawsuit accused Republicans of
packing black voters into certain districts to diminish their
voting power and make surrounding districts more white and more
likely to support Republicans.

The eight-member court was unanimous in ordering the further
review of the 11 districts in the opinion written by
conservative Justice Anthony Kennedy, and voted 7-1 to uphold
the other district, with conservative Justice Clarence Thomas
asserting that the 12th district should not have been upheld.

Kennedy wrote that the lower court did not sufficiently
analyze the consideration of race during the redistricting
process.

The lower court had said it needed to look at race only if
the district in question was not drawn based on “traditional
redistricting principles.” The high court faulted that approach,
saying that a regularly drawn map does not tell the full story.

“But if race for its own sake is the overriding reason for
choosing one map over others, race may still predominate,”
Kennedy wrote.

“For these reasons, a conflict or inconsistency between the
enacted plan and traditional redistricting criteria is not a
threshold requirement or a mandatory precondition in order for a
challenger to establish a claim of racial gerrymandering,” he
added.

Gerrymandering refers to manipulating the boundaries of a
voting district in order to favor a particular party.

The court sidestepped the issue of whether the 11 districts
had been drawn by Republicans in a way that violated the voters’
rights under the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which
requires that state legislature districts be drawn based on
population.

At issue was the state legislative map drawn by Republicans
after the 2010 census.

Democrats have accused Republicans in Virginia and other
states of crafting such legislative maps in a way that crams
black and other minority voters into certain districts in order
to reduce their overall sway in the state.

Race can be considered in redrawing boundaries of voting
districts only in certain instances, such as when states are
seeking to comply with the federal Voting Rights Act. That law
protects minority voters and was enacted to address a history of
racial discrimination in voting, especially in southern states.

In 2015, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 to throw out a lower
court’s decision upholding a Republican-backed state legislature
redistricting plan in Alabama that crammed black voters into
certain districts in a way critics claimed lessened their
influence at the polls.

The Supreme Court has never said redistricting cannot be
based on nakedly partisan aims like maximizing one party’s
election chances.



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