RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
To North Carolina now, where for more than a quarter-century two legislative districts in the state have been ground zero in a fight over race and redistricting. And today, they will be at the center of a case being heard by the Supreme Court. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg has more.
NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: When these two congressional districts first came before the Supreme Court in 1993, the court majority characterized district 12 as bizarre, unexplainable on grounds other than race and bearing an uncomfortable resemblance to political apartheid. Thereafter, the lines for district 12 and district 1 were redrawn to include an African-American voting-age population that was substantial but less than a majority.
There the lines pretty much remained until after the 2010 census, when the Republican Party, for the first time, took over the state legislature and drew the districts to include more than a 50 percent minority voting-age population. A group of North Carolina voters went to court challenging both districts. They contend the legislature packed more African-American voters into these two districts in an effort to dilute their voting strength in neighboring districts.
The state defends the lines drawn for one of these by saying it was trying to meet the requirements of the Voting Rights Act. It defends the other as based on the goal of increasing a partisan advantage, not based on race. So far, at least, the Supreme Court has ruled consistently that race may not be the predominant factor in redistricting, except in narrow circumstances. But the court has refused to get involved in partisan gerrymandering. Richard Hasen is an election law specialist at the University of California, Irvine.
RICHARD HASEN: If your claim is, we were just exercising naked political power, well, the courts are not touching that - at least not yet. But if the claim is, this is all about race, well, then the courts are going to get involved. And of course, the bottom line here is that in places in the South where the vast majority of African-Americans are Democratic voters and the majority of whites are Republican voters, to talk about whether it's race or party is really a kind of nonsensical discussion because there's so much overlap.
TOTENBERG: Finding the sweet spot between the Voting Rights Act requirement that minority voters have an equal chance at electing their candidates of choice while at the same time not discriminating on the basis of race too much, well, that's a tough order. Stanford law professor Nathan Persily, by his own account, drew about 10 percent of the legislative districts in the country after the last census.
NATHAN PERSILY: What the court needs to figure out is to have directions for jurisdictions to explain when they're allowed to take race into account but that you know, when does taking race into account break the Constitution? And, you know, in these cases, there's sort of a Goldilocks principle at work.
TOTENBERG: Meaning the states have to get the balance just right.
PERSILY: You have to have some sympathy for the jurisdictions here because, on the one hand, they know they're going to get sued no matter what they do. And yet, at the same time, we know that these redistricting plans are motivated by the incumbents in order to screw their opponents.
TOTENBERG: Earlier this year, a three-judge federal court in North Carolina ruled that the two districts were unconstitutionally drawn based on race. In a separate case from Virginia, also to be argued today, the districts were upheld by the lower court. The stakes in these cases go well beyond North Carolina and Virginia, as NYU law professor Richard Pildes observes.
RICHARD PILDES: The larger stakes for American democracy as - as well as American law are to what extent is it required to concentrate African-American voters in election districts, and to what extent does the Constitution actually prohibit the excessive concentration of African-American voters into districts?
TOTENBERG: That's in the short run, but the rules could conceivably change after the 2020 census if the justices decide that the Constitution prohibits some level of extreme partisanship in drawing district lines. Most observers think that's a long shot, especially since the election of Donald Trump all but guarantees a continued 5-to-4 conservative Supreme Court majority. But Justice Anthony Kennedy, the fifth vote in that majority, has not ruled out some intervention against extreme gerrymandering. And already there are cases posing that question headed to the Supreme Court from several other states. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.
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