509 U.S. 630 (1993), argued 20 Apr. 1993, decided 28 June 1993 by vote of 5 to 4; O’Connor for the Court, White, Blackmun, Stevens, and Souter in dissent. Before 1991 the state of North Carolina had never elected a black to sit in the United States Congress. That history ended, however, when Representatives Eva Clayton and Mel Watt, both Democrats, took their seats in Congress following the 1992 election. The new districts from which these two members of Congress came were drawn after the 1990 census to meet federal standards designed to increase the chances of minority candidates. Moreover, the changes wrought by the reapportionment of districts under the guidelines of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and its 1982 amendments doubled the number of black- and Hispanic-majority districts throughout the country, from twenty-six to fifty-two.
Of these news districts, however, none had an odder history and a stranger shape than the twelfth, which Representative Watt served. Except for a few bulges and detours, the Twelfth Congressional District of North Carolina ran along Interstate 85 for about 160 miles, from Durham to Gastonia, and in some instances the district was no wider than the interstate highway that it followed. Initially, North Carolina had tailored only the Twelfth District to comply with Sections 2 and 5 of the Voting Rights Act, but the Department of Justice rejected the proposal and North Carolina responded by creating a second district, although not in the region that the department had recommended. According to the Department of Justice, that second district and the entire effort to realign voting boundaries for federal elections was necessary because the 22 percent African-American population was not sufficiently represented. The Department of Justice, therefore, gave its blessing not only to the two districts but to the oddly shaped (indeed, even its creators called it “ugly”) district.
Ruth Shaw, a white Democrat and resident of the Twelfth District, brought suit against the United States government, represented by Attorney General Janet Reno, and the state of North Carolina. Robinson O. Everett, a Duke University law professor and himself one of the five plaintiffs in the case, argued it before both a special three-judge district court panel and the Supreme Court. In the case of the former, the judges dismissed the complaint, citing United Jewish Organizations of Williams-burgh v. Carey (1977), which held that a state could redistrict along racial lines to comply with the Voting Rights Act. The Court also said that such race distinctions had a good purpose and therefore were permissible under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Shaw and her fellow plaintiffs, however, pressed their claim before the Supreme Court, a court already deeply divided over the constitutionality of affirmative action. According to Shaw and the other plaintiffs, the Department of Justice and North Carolina's legislature had purposefully engaged in race-conscious drawing of district lines. Such “racial redistricting” both discriminated against whites and was an implicit affront to blacks because it implied that they were incapable of organizing coalitions to elect favored candidates of whatever race. In essence, the redistricting plan was a form of reverse discrimination that threatened to balkanize North Carolina into competing racial factions and entrench racial bloc voting. Such actions amounted to the kind of conduct that had led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act in the first place and that had characterized the history of discrimination against black would-be voters in the South during the first half of the twentieth century. The plaintiffs asserted that only by doing what the Voting Rights Act demanded—exercising “color-blind” redistricting—would North Carolina and other states take proper account of all constituencies, such as farmers and political partisans, that would otherwise be barred from effective representation by the effort to draw districts exclusively along racial lines. The Democratic plaintiffs were haunted by another political reality, however. By consolidating the black vote, which had historically been Democratic, the Republican party was better able to make inroads in white districts.