SCOTUS Amongus: Cooper v Harris

In terms of redistricting, looks like North Carolina is going back [PUTS SUNGLASSES ON] to the drawing board. [THE SONG WHO ARE YOU SUDDENLY STARTS PLAYING]  



“SCOTUS Amongus” is our series of articles in which we discuss Supreme Court (SCOTUS) cases. The play on words of a meh Incubus album aside, this is a way for us to do a quick rundown on some of the major court decisions that SCOTUS makes. In this edition, we talk about SCOTUS’ decision in Cooper v Harris and how it affects North Carolina’s redistricting practices. 



What was Cooper v Harris all about?

The case centered around the creation of two Democratically held political districts in North Carolina; NC-01 and NC-12. Many had complained that North Carolina Republican legislators had created the districts through racial gerrymandering, to reduce the influence of Democratic voters around the surrounding areas. Particularly in the case of NC-12, which some described the political district like “a snake”, in hopes of packing Democrats into a concentrated area.



So it’s about gerrymandering. Cool, got it!

Well, the question that is being asked here is bigger than that. The practice of gerrymandering by party lines is not illegal. However, it is illegal to gerrymander under the pretext of race. Basically in Cooper v Harris, you have one side saying that the two gerrymandered districts in North Carolina were created by “packing-in” Democratic voters to give Republicans an advantage in state elections (not illegal). While the other side says, that considering the majority of Democrats in that area are of African-American descent, gerrymandering ended up being based on race (illegal). Over the years, the question became how to differentiate gerrymandering practices between political allegiance and race? This becomes especially difficult in the South, where the vast majority of African-Americans are Democrats.



So how did the Supreme Court rule on Cooper v Harris?  

In a 5-3 decision, SCOTUS ruled that race played a predominant factor in drawing both of North Carolina’s political districts. Considering the correlation between race and party affiliation in this circumstance, SCOTUS generally agreed that North Carolina’s gerrymandering practices were impossible not to have some sort of impact on race. In other words, even if the individuals who had drawn the NC-01 and NC-12 districts weren’t motivated by packing-in African-American voters over race, the court ruled that had become the eventual outcome. Because of that, the Court ruled that this particular instance of gerrymandering had violated the Voting Rights Act.



So what does this decision mean moving forward?

With similar court decisions in southern states like Alabama and Virginia, SCOTUS’ decision of Cooper v Harris makes it easier for voting rights plaintiffs to challenge Republican legislators that redraw districts in their favor. In many ways, the decision makes it harder for Republican legislators to gerrymander without accountability. For voting rights activists, the decision of Cooper v Harris pushes the idea of redistricting taken away from state legislators forward; even if it’s only the slightest of steps in that direction.



How the Judges Voted

Concurrence: Kagan (wrote the opinion), Sotomayor, Breyer, Ginsburg, Thomas

Dissent: Roberts, Kennedy, Alito



(Photo Credit: Wikipedia)


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