U.S. Supreme Court Grapples With Racial Gerrymandering Cases

(Bloomberg) -- The U.S. Supreme Court wrestled with whether Republican lawmakers in Virginia and North Carolina unconstitutionally packed racial minorities into a handful of legislative districts in order to reduce their influence elsewhere.

Hearing arguments Monday in Washington, the justices returned to the familiar subject of race and political map-drawing in the context of two politically divided states. The two-hour session suggested the possibility of a narrow outcome, with each side potentially winning on some aspects of the disputes.

In the Virginia case, a lower court upheld 12 Republican-backed state legislative districts, all designed to have a voting-age population at least 55 percent black. Several justices suggested Monday that they would at least tell the lower court to revisit the case and give the districts tougher scrutiny. The group included the pivotal Anthony Kennedy, who said he had "problems" with some parts of the lower court’s reasoning.

In the North Carolina case, a lower court threw out two U.S. congressional districts, saying they rely too heavily on race.

Virginia and North Carolina officials say they were trying to preserve black majorities and comply with the Voting Rights Act, the landmark 1965 law designed to protect racial minorities. North Carolina also contends that, with regard to one of its disputed districts, map-drawers were legitimately motivated by politics.

Democrats and black voters say the goal was to dilute minority voting strength and preserve the power of neighboring white Republicans. In North Carolina, for example, congressional district lines have helped Republicans win 10 of the state’s 13 House seats.

The cases are testing a 2015 Supreme Court ruling that said states can’t take a "mechanically numerical" approach toward the racial composition of voting districts.

The author of that opinion, Stephen Breyer, said he had hoped that ruling "would end these cases in this court, which it certainly doesn’t seem to have done."

The cases are Bethune-Hill v. Virginia State Board of Elections, 15-680, and McCrory v. Harris, 15-1262.