“Redistricting is a game of margins,” attorney Kate McKnight told lawmakers at the Legislative Summit in Boston. Legislatures always start with existing district maps and work from there, she said. No one starts completely from scratch. McKnight was joined by fellow attorney Abha Khanna for a discussion of the U.S. Supreme Court’s rulings in recent redistricting cases. Moderating the session, “Redistricting Goes to Court,” was Jessica Karls-Ruplinger, with the Wisconsin Legislative Council. As state legislators prepare to adjust the margins of districts in the next redistricting cycle based on the 2020 census, they’ll be looking to the court for guidance. It can be difficult to predict how a decision in one case might apply to others, but the attorneys told the group the court has asserted some general principles in recent decisions.
Race cannot be used as a proxy to achieve other goals, including partisan gerrymandering: In Cooper v. Harris, the court agreed with the plaintiffs’ argument that the North Carolina legislature violated the Equal Protection Clause when it increased the percentage of black voters in two of the state’s congressional districts. By “packing” black voters into the two districts, Republicans “whitened” the adjacent districts, giving themselves a partisan advantage.
The intent of the legislature is crucial: The court held in Bethune-Hill v. Virginia State Board of Elections that if evidence is shown that the legislature intended to draw districts based on racial preferences, then its maps can be rejected. Further, the court reasserted that circumstantial evidence can be relevant, if it goes toward proving intent.