Shaw v. Reno: Supreme Court Case, Arguments, Impact

Racial Gerrymanding and the Fourteenth Amendment

A map of congressional district in North Carolina from 1993 to 1998
A map showing Congressional districts in North Carolina between 1993 and 1998.

 Wikimedia Commons / United States Department of the Interior

In Shaw v. Reno (1993), the U.S. Supreme Court questioned the use of racial gerrymandering in North Carolina's reapportionment plan. The Court found that race could not be the deciding factor when drawing districts.

Fast Facts: Shaw v. Reno

  • Case Argued: April 20, 1993
  • Decision Issued: June 28, 1993
  • Petitioner: Ruth O. Shaw, a North Carolina resident who led a group of white voters in the lawsuit
  • Respondent: Janet Reno, U.S. Attorney General
  • Key Questions: Is racial gerrymandering subject to strict scrutiny under the Fourteenth Amendment?
  • Majority Decision: Justices Rehnquist, O'Connor, Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas
  • Dissenting: Justices White, Blackmun, Stevens, Souter
  • Ruling: When a newly created district cannot be explained by means other than race, it is subject to strict scrutiny. A state must prove a compelling interest in order to survive a legal challenge to the redistricting plan.

Facts of the Case

North Carolina’s 1990 census entitled the state to a 12th seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. The general assembly drafted a re-apportionment plan that created one black-majority district. At the time, North Carolina’s voting-age population was 78% white, 20% black, 1% Native American, and 1% Asian. The general assembly submitted the plan to the U.S. Attorney General for preclearance under the Voting Rights Act. Congress had amended the VRA in 1982 to target "vote dilution" in which members of a specific racial minority were spread thin across a district to decrease their ability to ever gain a voting majority. The Attorney General formally objected to the plan, arguing that a second majority-minority district could be created in the south-central to the southeastern region to empower Native American voters.

The general assembly took another look at the maps and drew in a second majority-minority district in the north-central region of the state, along Interstate 85. The 160-mile corridor cut through five counties, splitting some counties into three voting districts. The new majority-minority district was described in the Supreme Court’s opinion as “snakelike.”

Residents objected to the re-apportionment plan, and five white residents from Durham County, North Carolina, led by Ruth O. Shaw, filed suit against the state and the federal government. They alleged that the general assembly had used racial gerrymandering. Gerrymandering occurs when one group or political party draws voting district boundaries in a way that gives a specific group of voters more power. Shaw sued on the basis that the plan violated several constitutional principles, including the Fourteenth Amendment Equal Protection Clause, which guarantees equal protection under law for all citizens, regardless of race. A district court dismissed the claims against the federal government and the state. The Supreme Court granted certiorari to address the claim against the state.

Arguments

Residents argued that the state had gone too far when redrawing district lines to create a second majority-minority district. The resulting district was strangely structured and did not follow reapportionment guidelines which highlighted the importance of “compactness, contiguousness, geographical boundaries, or political subdivisions." According to the residents' complaint, racial gerrymandering prevented voters from participating in a “color-blind” voting process.

An attorney on behalf of North Carolina argued that the general assembly had created the second district in an attempt to better comply with requests from the Attorney General in accordance with the Voting Rights Act. The VRA required an increase in the representation of minority groups. The U.S. Supreme Court and the federal government should encourage states to find ways to comply with the act, even if compliance results in oddly shaped districts, the attorney argued. The second majority-minority district served an important purpose in North Carolina’s overall re-apportionment plan.

Constitutional Issues

Did North Carolina violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment when it established a second majority-minority district through racial gerrymandering, in response to a request from the attorney general?

Majority Opinion

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor delivered the 5-4 decision. Legislation that classifies a person or group of people solely based on their race is, by its nature, a threat to a system that strives to achieve equality, the majority opined. Justice O’Connor noted that there are some rare circumstances where a law can appear racially neutral, but cannot be explained through anything but race; North Carolina’s reapportionment plan fell into this category.

The majority found that North Carolina’s twelfth district was “so extremely irregular” that its creation suggested some sort of racial bias. Therefore, the state’s redesigned districts deserve the same level of scrutiny under the Fourteenth Amendment as a law that has explicit racial motivations. Justice O'Connor applied strict scrutiny which asks the court to determine whether a race-based classification is narrowly tailored, has a compelling government interest and offers the "least restrictive" means of achieving that governmental interest.

Justice O'Connor, on behalf of the majority, found that redistricting plans could take race into account in order to comply with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but race could not be the sole or predominant factor when drawing a district.

In reference to re-apportionment plans that focus on race as a determining factor, Justice O’Connor wrote:

“It reinforces racial stereotypes and threatens to undermine our system of representative democracy by signaling to elected officials that they represent a particular racial group rather than their constituency as a whole.”

Dissenting Opinion

In his dissent, Justice White argued that the Court had ignored the importance of showing "cognizable harm," also known as proof that any sort of "harm" had even occurred. In order for white voters in North Carolina to even file suit against the state and federal government, they had to have been harmed. The white North Carolina voters could not show that they were disenfranchised as a result of the second, oddly shaped majority-minority district, Justice White wrote. Their individual voting rights had not been impacted. He argued that drawing districts based on race in order to increase minority representation could serve an important government interest.

Dissents from Justices Blackmun and Stevens echoed Justice White. The Equal Protection Clause should only be used to protect those who have been discriminated against in the past, they wrote. White voters could not fall into that category. By ruling in this manner, the Court actively overturned a past ruling on the applicability of the Equal Protection Clause.

Justice Souter noted that the Court seemed to be suddenly applying strict scrutiny to a law that aimed to increase representation amongst a historically discriminated group.

Impact

Under Shaw v. Reno, redistricting can be held to the same legal standard as laws that explicitly classify by race. Legislative districts that cannot be explained through any means other than race may be struck down in court.

The Supreme Court continues to hear cases about gerrymandering and racially motivated districts. Only two years after Shaw v. Reno, the same five Supreme Court justices explicitly stated that racial gerrymandering violated the Fourteenth Amendment Equal Protection Clause in Miller v. Johnson.

Sources

  • Shaw v. Reno, 509 U.S. 630 (1993).
  • Miller v. Johnson, 515 U.S. 900 (1995).