On May 15, the Supreme Court let stand a decision from the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruling that North Carolina’s sweeping voting restrictions targeted African-American voters “with almost surgical precision.”
A week later, on May 22, the Supreme Court struck down two of North Carolina’s congressional districts as unconstitutional racial gerrymanders, upholding a lower-court opinion that “race predominated” in drawing the districts.
It’s now overwhelmingly clear that Republicans in North Carolina illegally made it harder for African Americans to vote and diminished the power of their votes. Today’s decision could have far-reaching ramifications for striking down gerrymandering nationwide.
In a 5-3 opinion today, Justice Kagan (surprisingly joined by Justice Thomas) ruled that North Carolina artificially increased the number of black voters in the state’s 1st and 12th congressional districts. In the 1st district, the black voting-age population jumped from 48.6 percent to 52.7 percent and in the 12th from 43.8 percent to 50.7 percent. Although black Democrats had held both seats since 1992, Republican leaders said they needed to make the two districts over 50 percent African American to comply with the Voting Rights Act, which Kagan said was blatantly untrue.
Kagan cited a conversation former congressman Mel Watt, who represented the 12th District from 1993 to 2013, had with GOP State Senator Bob Rucho, who oversaw redistricting efforts:
Perhaps the most dramatic testimony in the trial came when Congressman Mel Watt (who had represented District 12 for some 20 years) recounted a conversation he had with Rucho in 2011 about the district’s future make-up. According to Watt, Rucho saithat “his leadership had told him that he had to ramp the minority percentage in [District 12] up to over 50percent to comply with the Voting Rights Law.” And further, that it would then be Rucho’s “job to go and convince the African-American community” that such a racial target “made sense” under the Act.
Watt recalled that he laughed in response because the VRA required no such target. And he told Rucho that “the African-American community will laugh at you” too. Watt explained to Rucho: “I’m getting 65% of the vote in a 40% black district. If you ramp my [BVAP] to over 50%, I’ll probably get 80% of the vote, and that’s not what the Voting Rights Actwas designed to do.”