Supreme Court limits racial gerrymandering by DOJ

Washington, D.C. – In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court today sharply limited the ability of the Department of Justice to racially gerrymander local voting districts. In the case of Reno v. Bossier Parish School Board, Justice Scalia declared that the DOJ may no longer use the pre-clearance provision of the Voting Rights Act to force local jurisdictions to artificially maximize the number of minority districts.

According to today’s decision, DOJ may not deny pre-clearance solely because the new voting plan fails to maximize the number of minority voting districts. Instead, the DOJ may block a proposed voting plan only if it manifests an discriminatory intent to “retrogress.” In practice, this means that so long as a new districting plan maintains the existing number of minority voting districts, it will receive pre-clearance.

Attorney Michael Carvin of the Cooper, Carvin & Rosenthal, who argued the case on behalf of Bossier Parish, stated, “We are gratified that the Court has effectively ended the Clinton Justice Department’s efforts to force localities to racially gerrymander under the Voting Rights Act.”

Michael P. McDonald, President of the Center for Individual Rights, a D.C. based public interest law firm which together with Carvin represented Bossier Parish, said “Today’s decision in Bossier is a repudiation of the DOJ’s strong-arm tactics, and demonstrates that once again the Clinton Administration’s race conscious policies are out of step with the law.”

The case arises from voting map changes in Bossier Parish, a district in northwestern Louisiana, following the 1990 census. In 1993, the Bossier Parish school board submitted a race-neutral plan, identical to one earlier approved by the DOJ. This time, DOJ denied pre-clearance on the basis of a new, alternate plan proffered by the NAACP which would have maximized the number of majority-minority districts. A three judge district court heard Bossier’s appeal, and determined that its voting plan did not have a discriminatory purpose or retrogressive result, and that Bossier was thus entitled to pre-clearance for its race neutral plan under the Voting Rights Act.