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Supreme Court Cases

Shaw v. Reno

In its landmark 1993 decision in Shaw v. Reno, the Supreme Court ruled on the constitutionality of racial gerrymandering.


The Case in Brief

History. In response to the mountain of discriminatory election practices during the Jim Crow era, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act in 1965. This legislation sought to reverse those tactics and included a provision requiring states with a history of discriminatory election laws to seek the federal government’s approval — a process known as preclearance — to enact voting changes. 

Case Facts. After the Attorney General rejected their initial redistricting proposal under the preclearance process, the North Carolina state legislature drew maps with two majority-minority districts. Five voters sued the state and federal governments, arguing that lawmakers unconstitutionally racially gerrymandered.

Majority Opinion. Racial gerrymandering, whatever its intentions, presents a dangerous precedent. Voters may challenge maps under the Equal Protection Clause if the sole rationale for drawing the district was race.

Results. Next to Baker v. Carr, many historians hail Shaw v. Reno as one of the most important Supreme Court cases on redistricting. The Court found that racially motivated redistricting, whatever the intentions, would face a higher level of scrutiny in federal courts.


After the Civil War, Congress ratified the Reconstruction Amendments — the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments — ending slavery, extending rights to formerly enslaved people, and granting African American men the right to vote. However, shortly after, legislation swept through Southern state legislatures attempting to deny minorities those rights. This period, known as the Jim Crow era, saw a wave of restrictive voter registration and election laws. In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act (VRA) to reverse these discriminatory voting laws and prohibit new ones. Under Section 5 of the VRA, states with a history of discriminatory election laws had to seek preclearance to enact voting changes, including redistricting. 

Case Facts

Following the 1990 census, North Carolina gained a seat in the House of Representatives during reapportionment. While African Americans encompassed 20% of the state’s population, none of its members of Congress were Black. So, state lawmakers drew a majority-Black district, assuming they would elect a Black representative, and submitted the maps to the U.S. Attorney General — Janet Reno — for preclearance. Reno rejected them, saying state lawmakers should draw a second majority-minority district. While they did so, the resulting 12th district was highly irregular, dividing counties and towns while grouping areas that were nowhere near each other. In 1992, the two majority-minority districts elected Black representatives.

Five North Carolinians — including Ruth Shaw — sued the state and federal government, arguing that the legislature had racially gerrymandered the maps — specifically the 12th district. They claimed that this violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, which says that a state cannot “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

Reno’s legal team argued that the Voting Rights Act encouraged creating majority-minority districts, saying it would empower historically disenfranchised racial groups.

A federal district court dismissed the voters’ challenge, saying that race-based redistricting to benefit minorities was constitutional. The voters appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, which heard arguments in 1993.

Majority Opinion

Racial gerrymandering, whatever its intentions, presents a dangerous precedent. If legislators draw districts to advance a specific racial group, their elected officials may believe they should only represent that group instead of their whole constituency.

North Carolina’s 12th congressional district is similar to past districts the Court has found unconstitutional. The District Court must determine if the legislators can justify this plan in terms other than race.

Grouping people that are geographically separate and share little in common other than race is equivalent to racial segregation. Classifying people by race and nothing else promotes judgment based on Americans’ skin color.

Voters may challenge maps under the Equal Protection Clause if the sole rationale for drawing the district was race.

Dissenting Opinion

Legislators will inevitably consider race when redistricting. It is constitutional if they do not redistrict to deprive a racial group of equal opportunity to participate in the political process.

Because people of the same race often share interests and vote similarly, there are legitimate reasons to consider race while redistricting.

Race-conscious gerrymandering only violates the Equal Protection Clause if the purpose is to enhance the redistricting party at the expense of minorities.

Related Cases

Shelby County v. Holder (2013)

(Texas Signal)

In 2013, the Supreme Court significantly limited federal oversight of state election practices — including redistricting — in the landmark case Shelby County v. Holder. Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 established the formula for which states and districts must seek federal preclearance before changing election laws. Shelby County, Alabama — an affected jurisdiction — challenged that criteria in federal court and the Section 5 preclearance requirement. 

In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the Section 4 formula was outdated and amounted to federal overreach. While the majority did not rule on Section 5’s constitutionality, they effectively nullified it by prohibiting the government from using the old formula to determine which states and districts must seek preclearance. While the federal government denied many redistricting proposals under preclearance in the past, Shelby County v. Holder removed that oversight, making the 2020 redistricting cycle the first in half a century to take place without it.

Discussion Questions

  1. Is it fair to maintain preclearance requirements for states and districts that Congress determined in the 1960s? Explain your stance.
  2. Does the removal of the preclearance requirement increase the risk of racial gerrymandering? Why or why not?
  3. Should Congress enact a modern, updated formula to determine which jurisdictions must obtain preclearance for voting changes? Explain your view.

Department of Justice Sues Texas

(NBC News)

On December 6, 2021, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) announced a lawsuit against Texas over its new legislative maps. While the state gained two seats during reapportionment and 95% of population growth was among people of color, state lawmakers reduced the number of majority-minority districts. The DOJ claims they discriminated against Black and Latino voters, purposefully diluting their voting power. In their suit, the DOJ argues that this discrimination violates the Voting Rights Act and has asked a federal court to prohibit any elections under the new maps. 

For nearly five decades, Texas had to obtain preclearance for election law changes. Due to the Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder, they were able to enact new legislative maps without federal approval during the 2020 redistricting cycle. Attorney General Merrick Garland — who heads the DOJ — has called on Congress to establish an updated preclearance formula.

See Civil’s initial coverage of that lawsuit here.

Discussion Questions

  1. Do Texas’ new legislative maps discriminate against minority voters? If so, how could state lawmakers remedy them?
  2. Does this case illustrate an error in the majority’s rationale in Shelby County v. Holder? Explain your position.
  3. Should Texas be subject to federal preclearance of election law changes? Why or why not?

Alabama Redistricting Controversy

(The New York Times)

The legal challenges to Alabama’s congressional map present some of the highest-profile racial gerrymandering lawsuits of the 2020 redistricting cycle. The Republican-led legislature enacted the map in November 2021, redrawing the state’s seven House districts. A group of Black Alabama voters and the Alabama NAACP sued the state over its map, claiming that Republican lawmakers had drawn most of the state’s Black population into one district — a practice known as “packing” — diluting their overrule voting power. Over a quarter of Alabama’s population is Black, leading these challengers to argue that the state should have two majority-minority districts. 

In January, a three-judge panel threw out the map and ordered the legislature to draw another one before the state’s May primaries, saying that the existing map likely violated the Voting Rights Act. However, the Supreme Court reinstated the map in a 5-4 vote in February, saying it was too close to the election to change the districts. It will hear arguments over its constitutionality in fall 2022. Alabama previously had to submit its legislative maps to the federal government for preclearance but did not have to during the 2020 cycle following the Supreme Court’s Shelby County decision.

Discussion Questions

  1. How does “packing” dilute minorities’ voting power?
  2. Did Alabama have enough time to redraw districts following the first panel’s order? Explain your view.
  3. Should legislative districts reflect a state’s overall demographic population? Why or why not?

FRQ Practice

Following the 2010 census, the North Carolina state legislature appointed committees in each of its two chambers to create a redistricting plan. The heads of those panels hired a redistricting coordinator, instructing him to create two more majority-Black districts. They argued that they did so to comply with the Supreme Court’s interpretation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. The legislature submitted it to the Department of Justice, and the Attorney General granted it preclearance. David Harris and Christine Bowser, two voters in the respective majority-Black districts, sued the state, arguing that lawmakers used the Voting Rights Act as a pretext to “pack” most of the state’s Black population into the districts and reduce their influence in other ones. 

The District Court determined that race was the predominant factor motivating the redistricting plan. Under Supreme Court precedent, this amounts to an unconstitutional racial gerrymander, violating the Equal Protection Clause. Following an appeal, the Supreme Court sided 5-3 with the voters, ruling that the District Court received sufficient evidence to determine that race was lawmakers’ predominant rationale when drawing the map.

Based on the information given, respond to Parts A, B, and C.

  1. Identify the constitutional clause common to Shaw v. Reno (1993) and Cooper v. Harris (2017).
  2. Explain how the decision in Cooper v. Harris reflects the precedent the Supreme Court set in Shaw v. Reno.
  3. Describe a political action that members of the public who disagree with the holding in Shaw v. Reno could take to impact the redistricting process.

Important Terms

Census. Every 10 years, the federal government attempts to count every person residing in the United States by conducting a constitutionally-required census. The government uses this data for several significant purposes, including reapportionment.

Reapportionment. Following the census, the U.S. Census Bureau redistributes the 435 seats in the House of Representatives among the 50 states. The number fluctuates up or down based on population changes, but each state must have at least one representative.

Redistricting. After every reapportionment, any state with two or more representatives begins redistricting, where they redraw district boundaries for Congress and state legislatures. States often entrust this responsibility to their legislature, a commission, or some combination of the two.

Racial Gerrymandering. Gerrymandering is when a redistricting body redraws lines to give a group an unfair advantage. Racial gerrymandering is when they draw the boundaries to dilute minorities’ voting power.

Majority-Minority District. A majority-minority district is an electoral district in which a racial minority group or groups make up the majority of a district’s total population.

Preclearance. Under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, states and districts with a history of racial discrimination had to prove to the Attorney General or the District Court for the District of Columbia that any change affecting voting did not have a discriminatory purpose or potential effect.