Supreme Court snatches victory away from the forces of gerrymandering

Ian Millhiser

Ian Millhiser Senior Constitutional Policy Analyst, Think Progress

On Wednesday morning, the Supreme Court corrected a serious error by a lower federal court that, if allowed to spread throughout the judiciary, could have significantly bolstered future attempts to draw gerrymandered districts.

Bethune-Hill v. Virginia State Board of Elections concerns 12 Virginia state legislative districts that were allegedly drawn as racial gerrymanders. Each district was drawn to ensure that black voters would make up at least 55 percent of the district’s voters. The state claims it did this in order to comply with the Voting Rights Act as it stood prior to the Supreme Court’s 2012 decision gutting much of the law.

The Court largely avoided the question of whether 11 of the 12 districts were drawn lawfully, sending the districts back down to the lower court for reconsideration. It did, however, correct a mistake by the lower court that would have effectively allowed illegal gerrymanders to thrive so long as they are pretty.

“An essential premise of” the lower court’s opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy explained on behalf of the Court, is that map is not an illegal racial gerrymander unless “there is an ‘actual conflict between traditional redistricting criteria and race that leads to the subordination of the former.’”

These traditional criteria include traits such as compactness and continuity, which the courts have historically used as proxies to sort good maps from bad. If a district is ugly and misshapen — if it stretches, like a salamander, throughout many distant parts of the state — then courts are more likely to deem it an unlawful gerrymander. If a state’s maps are neat and tidy, however, they are more likely to survive.

But, as Kennedy explains, compliance with these traditional criteria is not, in and of itself, sufficient reason to declare a map lawful. Quoting an earlier Supreme Court opinion, Kennedy explains that “shape is relevant not because bizarreness is a necessary element of the constitutional wrong or a threshold requirement of proof, but because it may be persuasive circumstantial evidence that race for its own sake, and not other districting principles, was the legislature’s dominant and controlling rationale.”

Since the lower court’s error has now been corrected, an otherwise illegal map will not survive judicial scrutiny simply because it looks nice. That’s good news for opponents of gerrymandering — especially if the Supreme Court ever comes around to the view that partisan gerrymandering (as opposed to racial gerrymandering) is unconstitutional.

One of the biggest challenges facing Democrats right now is geography. Because liberal voters tend to cluster in compact urban districts, while more conservative voters tend to spread out over more land, states that use traditional redistricting criteria such as compactness typically produce maps that favor Republicans. Consider, for example, this map:

 

CREDIT: ThinkProgress/Adam Peck

In a state where Democrats are clustered in the city and Republicans spread out in rural and suburban areas, the map on the left will produce two Democratic districts and three Republican districts, thereby favoring the GOP. The map on the right, by contrast, is more likely to produce five competitive districts where either party has a shot at prevailing.

A legal rule that enshrines compliance with traditional criteria as a defense to a gerrymandering lawsuit threatens to entrench the GOP’s dominance in the redistricting wars, even if the justices eventually started striking down partisan gerrymanders. This is not an academic question, moreover, as the Supreme Court is likely to review a lower court decision striking down Wisconsin’s state assembly maps as an unconstitutional gerrymander in its next term.

Ian Millhiser is a Senior Constitutional Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress Action Fund and the Editor of ThinkProgress Justice. He received a B.A. in Philosophy from Kenyon College and a J.D., magna cum laude, from Duke University. Ian clerked for Judge Eric L. Clay of the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, and has worked as an attorney with the National Senior Citizens Law Center’s Federal Rights Project, as Assistant Director for Communications with the American Constitution Society, and as a Teach For America teacher in the Mississippi Delta. His writings have appeared in a diversity of legal and mainstream publications, including the New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, U.S. News and World Report, Slate, the Guardian, the American Prospect, the Yale Law and Policy Review and the Duke Law Journal; and he has been a guest on CNN, MSNBC, Al Jazeera English, Fox News and many radio shows.

Posted In: Allied Approaches

Union Matters

Get to Know AFL-CIO's Affiliates: National Association of Letter Carriers

From the AFL-CIO

Next up in our series that takes a deeper look at each of our affiliates is the National Association of Letter Carriers.

Name of Union: National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC)

Mission: To unite fraternally all city letter carriers employed by the U.S. Postal Service for their mutual benefit; to obtain and secure rights as employees of the USPS and to strive at all times to promote the safety and the welfare of every member; to strive for the constant improvement of the Postal Service; and for other purposes. NALC is a single-craft union and is the sole collective-bargaining agent for city letter carriers.

Current Leadership of Union: Fredric V. Rolando serves as president of NALC, after being sworn in as the union's 18th president in 2009. Rolando began his career as a letter carrier in 1978 in South Miami before moving to Sarasota in 1984. He was elected president of Branch 2148 in 1988 and served in that role until 1999. In the ensuing years, he worked in various roles for NALC before winning his election as a national officer in 2002, when he was elected director of city delivery. In 2006, he won election as executive vice president. Rolando was re-elected as NALC president in 2010, 2014 and 2018.

Brian Renfroe serves as executive vice president, Lew Drass as vice president, Nicole Rhine as secretary-treasurer, Paul Barner as assistant secretary-treasurer, Christopher Jackson as director of city delivery, Manuel L. Peralta Jr. as director of safety and health, Dan Toth as director of retired members, Stephanie Stewart as director of the Health Benefit Plan and James W. “Jim” Yates as director of life insurance.

Number of Members: 291,000 active and retired letter carriers.

Members Work As: City letter carriers.

Industries Represented: The United States Postal Service.

History: In 1794, the first letter carriers were appointed by Congress as the implementation of the new U.S. Constitution was being put into effect. By the time of the Civil War, free delivery of city mail was established and letter carriers successfully concluded a campaign for the eight-hour workday in 1888. The next year, letter carriers came together in Milwaukee and the National Association of Letter Carriers was formed.

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There is Dignity in All Work

There is Dignity in All Work