It takes a lot to surprise me during these dark days of the Trump presidency but today somehow delivered two eye-poppers with one stone. On Monday, the Supreme Court struck down the congressional map of North Carolina, ruling that it unconstitutionally used race to determine districts. Perhaps even more surprising is that the 5-3 decision was determined by Justice Clarence Thomas, who sided with the court’s four liberal justices.
Though states are allowed to draw congressional maps based on partisanship, they cannot be determined on racial grounds, which the court ruled North Carolina lawmakers did. Mother Jones reports:
The Republican majority in North Carolina’s legislature drew the contested congressional district map in 2011. It added more African Americans to two districts that already had significant black populations and had consistently elected the representatives—all Democrats—favored by most black voters since the 1990s. Voters in those districts sued, claiming the lawmakers had intentionally reduced African American voting power elsewhere in the state. States are generally not allowed to use race as the predominant factor in drawing district lines.
Following his stint as Attorney General, Eric Holder revealed he would lead the charge against gerrymandering, believing Republicans had undermined our democracy via voter suppression. Holder told the New York Times he considered today’s ruling a major step forward
“This is a watershed moment in the fight to end racial gerrymandering,” Eric H. Holder Jr., the former attorney general and the chairman of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, said in a statement. “North Carolina’s maps were among the worst racial gerrymanders in the nation.”
While anything that isn’t actively disenfranchising marginalized people these days feels remarkable, just as shocking is Clarence Thomas’ role in all this.
When he’s not busy groping women, the conservative Justice Thomas does his part to make life harder for women and people of color including voting to gut the Voting Rights Act in 2013. But in this case, not only did he side with Justices Kagan, Sotomayor, Ginsburg and Breyer, Thomas also signed on to Kagan’s opinion. Election scholar Rich Hasen notes the importance of this on his blog:
This decision by Justice Kagan is a major victory for voting rights plaintiffs, who have succeeded in turning the racial gerrymandering cause of action into an effective tool to go after partisan gerrymanders in Southern states. That Justice Kagan got Justice Thomas not only to vote this way but to sign onto the opinion (giving it precedential value) is a really big deal. Despite what is written in the text of the opinion, Justice Kagan, in a couple of footnotes (footnotes 1 and 7), attempts to solve the race or party problem by moving the Court much closer to the position of treating race and party as proxies for one another in the American South.
As Democrats and people who aren’t racist applaud today’s decision, it’s important to remember that gerrymandering was perhaps the most unreported story and invisible tipping point of the 2016 election. North Carolina specifically has stood out as one of the best examples of the impact of voter suppression. Republicans won 10 of North Carolina’s 13 house seats while the state elected Democrat Rory Cooper as governor. Donald Trump narrowly won the state and its 15 electoral votes.
Today’s ruling will likely set the stage to stand as a precedent against voter suppression in future rulings, though I’m not holding my breath on Justice Thomas maintaining his conscience.