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SCOTUS News, Week of February 27th, 2017

Earlier this week, we covered the cases in which the Supreme Court heard oral arguments this week. The Supreme Court added new cases to their docket this week. They also issued a ruling in Bethune-Hill v. Virginia State Board of Elections. In so doing, the Court further clarifed the always contentious issues around gerrymandering. Let’s take a look.

Opinion Released

The Bethune case requires a bit of background information. The story began just after the 2010 census, when Virginia recognized the need to redraw several voting districts. The Virginia legislature enacted a rule that required twelve voting districts to have a population of black voters at or above 55 percent. Some viewed this rule as a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Specifically, these challengers saw the redrawn districts as racial gerrymandering.

The District Court originally heard this challenge, and declared that this was not gerrymandering. The language of the Equal Protection Clause, as well as controlling judicial precedent, demands that race be a predominant factor in redrawn lines, not merely one of many factors. Racial considerations must subordinate other factors in order to constitute a violation. The burden was on the challengers to prove gerrymandering via this predominance. The District Court ruled that they had not done so. Challengers appealed, and the Supreme Court heard the case and ruled this week.

The Supreme Court ruled in part that the District Court incorrectly determined that the redrawn districts were not racial gerrymandering. For this reason, the Court remanded the case back to the District Court in order to re-apply strict scrutiny and give a final determination for eleven of the districts.

SCOTUS then turned to the final, twelfth district. The District Court had determined that this district was in compliance with the Voting Rights Act, and that race was not a predominant factor. By law, a state may create a voting district along racial lines, but only if they believe this is necessary to comply with the VRA. In particular, the Court upheld the Virginia’s creation of the 55 percent black voter population standard. On this issue, the Supreme Court agreed and affirmed the District Court ruling on this final, twelfth district. Justice Kennedy wrote for the majority. Justice Alito concurred in part and concurred with the judgment. And Justice Thomas concurred in part and dissented in part.

Bethune-Hill v. Virginia State Board of Elections

Bethune-Hill v. Virginia State Board of Elections

The FantasySCOTUS Crowd was closer to the mark on this one. {Marshall}+ predicted a majority vote to affirm, with smaller margins of certainty from two of the more ideological duos on the Court, Ginsburg and Breyer, and Thomas and Alito. This is the Algorithm’s first true miss of this Supreme Court session.

Previously, the misses of both the Crowd and the Algorithm have been based on subtleties and narrower rulings. Chief Justice Roberts has made an effort toward narrow rulings in order to achieve consensus with only eight Justices. But in the case of Bethune, the Algorithm appears to have skewed too far toward this consensus approach. Similarly, the FantasySCOTUS Crowd made a logical prediction. They put Roberts, Alito, and Thomas into a bloc to affirm the District Court’s ruling, while predicting that Kennedy would join the liberal wing of the Court in reversal.