Is Gerrymandering Legal? | Shaw v. Reno

Mr. Beat is a social studies teacher who specializes in making history and geography more engaging

In episode 43 of Supreme Court Briefs, the North Carolina state legislature gerrymanders to help African Americans since North Carolina, ya know, doesn't historically elect African Americans.

#supremecourtbriefs #apgov #gerrymandering

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Produced by Matt Beat. All images by Matt Beat, found in the public domain, or used under fair use guidelines. Music by Electric Needle Room (Mr. Beat's band).

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Jim Bowen

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Mike Koenig

North Carolina


None of the state’s 11 Representatives in Congress are African American, despite the fact that 20% of the state’s population was. As matter of fact, since the Civil War North Carolina had only elected a total of 4 African Americans to the U.S. House of Representatives. After the 1990 census, North Carolina gained a district, so they were going to get a new Representative. The state legislature was like, we need an African American to represent this district, so they intentionally created a district made up of mostly African Americans under the assumption they would vote one in. After the legislature submitted their plans to the U.S. Department of Justice, Attorney General Janet Reno was like “nah, not good enough,” and rejected them, saying there needed to be another district where minorities would have a chance to represent constituents in order to comply with the Voting Rights Act.

So the state legislature went back to the drawing board, this time drawing up another district to help get another African American to represent North Carolina in Congress. Now, this district was a bit...odd shaped. I mean, just look at it here. It ran along Interstate 85 for 160 miles, breaking up counties and towns and grouping together places that typically were NOT grouped together. In some places, the district was only as wide as the highway itself.

And well...wouldn’t you know 1992 residents of both of those redrawn districts elected African Americans to represent them. Both were North Carolina’s first African Americans to get into Congress in the 20th century.

Well this made some North Carolina folks upset, you could say. They said that those districts were racially gerrymandered to get African Americans elected there. In case you didn’t know, gerrymandering means manipulating how the boundaries of districts are drawn to either favor one group or hurt another group. Gerrymandering is something of an infamous American tradition. As much as Americans hate the practice, it’s been around since the early days of the country. It was named after a dude named Elbridge Gerry (I know, his name is pronounced differently), who, as governor, signed the bill that approved a weirdly shaped district that benefitted his political party in the state of Massachusetts. The district’s shape somewhat resembled a salamander. So get it? Gerry which turned into Gerry plus salamander equals gerrymander?

Anyway, in this case, five North Carolina residents, led by a person named Ruth Shaw, sued both the state and the federal government, arguing that District 12, in particular, was gerrymandered so much that it went against the 14th Amendment’s tubular Equal Protection Clause. Again, they argued it was racial gerrymandering, not political gerrymandering, and they argued the drawn district didn’t go against the “one person, one vote” established in the case Reynolds v. Sims.

Arguments kept coming back to whether or not North Carolina’s redistricting plan went against the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.

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