517 U.S. 899 (1996), argued 5 Dec. 1995, decided 13 June 1996 by vote of 5 to 4; Rehnquist for the Court, Stevens and Souter in dissent, joined in various parts by Ginsburg and Breyer. In the 1993 case of Shaw v. Reno, the Supreme Court struck down a North Carolina plan that relied on race to redistrict congressional districts. A bitterly divided Court had concluded that if the state used race to undertake such redistricting, the plan had to withstand the demanding test of strict scrutiny under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. In Hunt the Court returned to the issue of racial gerrymandering, doing so at the same time it decided another case, Bush v. Vera et al., which involved Texas. In both instances the justices struck down redistricting measures, although they were hardly of one mind about either the reasons for or the wisdom of doing so.
Of the two cases, North Carolina presented the clearer set of facts. The state legislature had established a narrow 160-mile district that followed the course of Interstate 85, a plan that was intended to overcome the problems identified in Shaw v. Reno with previous efforts at redistricting. A federal district court in North Carolina approved the plan, holding that it met the demanding requirement under strict scrutiny that the state demonstrate a compelling interest in complying with the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and eradicating the effects of past discrimination. North Carolina, the district court noted, had not sent a black representative to Congress between 1901 and 1992. The district court also found that the remedy of creating the odd-shaped district was “narrowly tailored” and therefore acceptable under the strict scrutiny test for the use of race-based categories.
The Supreme Court, however, overturned the district court finding and held that the North Carolina plan violated the Equal Protection Clause. Chief Justice William Rehnquist's opinion found that whatever justification North Carolina might present in theory, in practice the skinny, 160-mile-long district lacked the compactness associated with acceptable districting plans and therefore was not narrowly tailored to achieve the state's goal. The dissenters, led by Justices John Paul Stevens and David Souter, urged the Court to reverse course and back away from applying the strictest constitutional scrutiny to majority-black districts in order that states such as North Carolina might correct past discrimination. At the same time, the decision, along with that in Bush, leaves unanswered the recurring question of whether compliance with the Voting Rights Act provides a sufficiently compelling interest for a state to invoke race-conscious redistricting.
Because the facts in the case were more dramatic than in Bush, the Court's action in Hunt sent a clearer message. Thus, Chief Justice Rehnquist, along with Associate Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, Sandra Day O’Connor, and Anthony M. Kennedy, were willing to strike down government actions that they considered too race-conscious and that relied too heavily on the federal government to right social wrongs.
Kermit L. Hall