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Supreme Court upholds Texas voting districts in racial gerrymandering case

The Supreme Court upheld current state and congressional districts in Texas in a much-awaited 5-4 decision on racial gerrymandering. The majority rejected a lower court's findings that Texas had engaged in racial discrimination, primarily against black and Hispanic voters, in its 2013 redistricting map. The National Law Journal's Marcia Coyle joins Amna Nawaz to discuss the ruling.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    But first, this term, the U.S. Supreme Court was asked to weigh in on one long-running political debate.

    As Amna Nawaz explains, it's all about what is and isn't allowed when lawmakers draw electoral districts.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Over the past year, the Supreme Court in more than one case has tackled gerrymandering. Today, the court ruled on a case out of Texas questioning whether the state used racial discrimination when drawing four state district lines.

    "The National Law Journal"'s Marcia Coyle joins me at the table to help us understand.

    Marcia, thanks for being here.

  • Marcia Coyle:

    Pleasure.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, let's talk about the case today. It's about a Texas congressional and legislative map, right? The allegation was that it was challenged as racial gerrymandering. What did the court say today?

  • Marcia Coyle:

    Well, the court divided 5-4 along ideological lines.

    Justice Alito, joined by four conservative justices, led the court in the majority opinion. And he — the majority rejected a lower court's findings that Texas had engaged in racial discrimination, primarily against black and Hispanic voters, in its 2013 redistricting map.

    Justice Alito said that the evidence of discrimination was insufficient to show that Texas had bad — the Texas legislature, which drew the map, had bad faith or had engaged in intentional discrimination.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, is that really a decision about whether or not this was racial gerrymandering?

  • Marcia Coyle:

    Oh, yes, absolutely.

    Justice Alito did say that there was one district, though, that stood out as being racially gerrymandered. And that was a state house district in which Texas had argued, we had to do it in order to comply with the Federal Voting Rights Act. And Justice Alito said there wasn't enough evidence to show that they had to discriminate against Hispanic voters in that particular district.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Justice Sotomayor wrote the dissent, using some fairly strong language here.

    And part of what she said was that — quote — "The court today does great damage to that right of equal opportunity, not because it denies the existence of that right, but because it refuses its enforcement."

    That's pretty strong language when it comes to something like this.

  • Marcia Coyle:

    It is. And she is very passionate when it comes to racial discrimination in voting or even in the criminal justice system.

    The dissenters that she led really had a difference of opinion with the majority over what the lower court found. Justice Sotomayor said that the majority here today had mischaracterized the lower court's findings and that there was ample evidence the Texas legislature acted in bad faith and intentionally discriminated.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, this wasn't the only gerrymandering case that the court considered this term, though, right? It was the only one dealing with race when it comes to gerrymandering.

  • Marcia Coyle:

    Yes.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The other two dealt with partisan gerrymandering.

    So where does today sort of fit into the landscape of the way the court has ruled on this issue?

  • Marcia Coyle:

    I really think it stands alone, because the court has dealt with racial gerrymandering in many contexts over the years and does decide these cases.

    The partisan gerrymander cases are different because the court has yet to come up with a standard or a test to determine when politics goes too far and violates the Constitution in redistricting.

    So, today, they actually had a case from North Carolina that was a challenge to North Carolina's congressional map, a partisan gerrymander challenge. And they sent that back to the lower court, saying, reconsider this, in light of a decision we made this month in a Wisconsin case.

    And in that Wisconsin case, again, the court didn't come up with a test. All it did basically was say what you have to show in order to get your foot in the courthouse door if you want to challenge partisan gerrymandering.

    So, it offered a little bit of guidance, but not a whole lot.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, Marcia, very quickly now, the central question in this seems to be, does the Constitution forbid gerrymandering, and, if so, where should the court draw the line? Do we have an answer to that?

  • Marcia Coyle:

    No, we don't.

    And it's really a question of, when is partisanship so excessive that it violates the Constitution? And the challengers to many of these maps around the country — and these cases will keep coming back to the Supreme Court until it does rule — are — the basis of the challenges are, violates the First Amendment, your right of association, violates the 14th Amendment, your right — your right not to have your vote diluted for partisan reasons.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Marcia Coyle, thanks for being here.

  • Marcia Coyle:

    My pleasure.

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