Bartlett v. Strickland

PETITIONER:Gary Bartlett, Executive Director of North Carolina State Board of Elections, et al.
RESPONDENT:Dwight Strickland et al.
LOCATION: Pender County North Carolina

DOCKET NO.: 07-689
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2006-2009)
LOWER COURT: North Carolina Supreme Court

CITATION: 556 US 1 (2009)
GRANTED: Mar 17, 2008
ARGUED: Oct 14, 2008
DECIDED: Mar 09, 2009

Christopher G. Browning, Jr. – North Carolina Solicitor General, argued the cause for the petitioners
Carl W. Thurman III – argued the cause for the respondents
Daryl Joseffer – Assistant to the Solicitor General, Department of Justice, for the United States, as amicus curiae, supporting the respondents

Facts of the case

Dwight Strickland, a commissioner in Pender County, NC, along with several other county commissioners, brought this suit against state officials alleging that their redistricting plan was in violation of the North Carolina Constitution. The state officials argued that the redistricting plan was required by the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA), stating that the minority group in question, comprised of African-American North Carolina citizens, was sufficiently large and geographically compact to constitute a majority under the terms of the VRA. The North Carolina Superior Court agreed with the state officials and entered summary judgment in their favor.

The North Carolina Supreme Court reversed on appeal, holding that the minority group did not comprise a numerical majority of citizens and, therefore, redistricting was not required by the VRA. Because the redistricting plan did not meet the conditions of the VRA, the court said, it had to comply with certain terms of North Carolina’s Constitution setting a minimum county population for redistricting. The court found that the county did not meet this requirement, and declared the plan unlawful.


Is a North Carolina redistricting plan in a county lacking a numerical majority of minority citizens required by the Voting Rights of Act of 1965 and, therefore, exempt from complying with the conditions of the North Carolina Constitution.

Media for Bartlett v. Strickland

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – October 14, 2008 in Bartlett v. Strickland

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – March 09, 2009 in Bartlett v. Strickland

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Justice Kennedy has the opinion of the Court this morning in Case 07-689, Bartlett versus Strickland.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

This is an opinion in answering the judgment of the Court.

The case arises under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Section 2, the statute, prohibits practices imposed or applied by any State or political subdivision in a manner which results in a denial or abridgment of the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color.

It is accepted law that Section 2 can sometimes require legislators to draw a district where a minority group is geographically compact and would constitute a numerical majority of the voting age population.

In election law parlance, that’s called a majority-minority district.

Today’s case involves a different kind of district, a so-called crossover district.

In this kind of district, the minority population is not itself a numerical majority of the voting age population.

And it can elect the candidate of its choice only with the help from white crossover voters.

The question here in this case is whether Section 2 can ever require the creation of a crossover district.

When the North Carolina General Assembly redrew its districts after the 2000 census, it drew House District 18 for the State General Assembly to split Pender and New Hanover counties.

That created the district with an African-American voting age population of 39%, a larger voting minority than if Pender County had not been split, but still it was not a majority-minority district.

Pender County and its Commissioners filed a suit against North Carolina state officials.

They alleged that District 18 violated the North Carolina Constitution, which prohibit splitting counties to draw legislative districts.

The North Carolina voting officials answered that keeping Pender County whole and not creating the crossover district would have deluded the minority groups voting strength in violation of Section 2, the controlling federal law.

In the case of Thornburg versus Gingles, this Court established three threshold requirements for Section 2 liability and at issue here is the first so-called Gingles’ requirement.

And it is that the minority group at issue be sufficiently large and geographically compact to constitute a majority in a single member district.

Because the African-American voting age population in District 18 is only 39%, the Supreme Court of North Carolina held that state officials could not satisfy the first Gingles’ requirement.

The State Supreme Court ordered them to redraw the district.

We granted certiorari.

And today, we affirmed the State Supreme Court’s decision.

The state voting officials were the petitioners in this Court argued that although these crossover districts do not include a numerical majority of minority voters, they nevertheless satisfy the first Gingles’ requirement because they are effective minority districts.

We conclude the petitioner’s theory is contrary to the text of Section 2 and to the reasoning of our cases in this area.

Allowing crossover district claims has a mandatory requirement under the statute would require us to revise and reformulate the Gingles’ threshold inquiry that has been the baseline of our Section 2 jurisprudence.

We find support for the majority-minority requirement in the need for workable standards and sound judicial and legislative administration.

The rule draws clear lines for courts and legislators alike.

The same could not be said of the less exacting standard that would mandate crossover districts under Section 2.

Applying that standard would place courts in the untenable position of predicting many political variables and tying them to race-based assumptions.

We must be most cautious before interpreting the statute to require courts to make inquiries based on racial classifications and race-based predictions.

The statutory mandate petitioners urge us to find in Section 2 raises serious constitutional questions.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

Heightening these concerns is the fact that Section 2 applies nationwide to every jurisdiction that must draw lines for election districts under state or local law.

Crossover district claims will require courts to make predictive political judgments not only about familiar two-party contests in large districts, but also about regional and local jurisdictions where political data are nonexistence and any predictions would be speculative at best.

Given the text of Section 2, our case is interpreting that provision and the difficulty of assessing Section 2 claims without the objective guidance of the majority-minority rule.

It is no surprise that every federal court of appeals to consider the question has interpreted the first Gingles’ factor to require a majority-minority standard.

To the extent there is any doubt where the Section 2 calls for the majority-minority rule, we resolve that out by avoiding serious constitutional concerns under the Equal Protection Clause, which permits racial classifications only as the last resort.

If Section 2 were interpreted to require crossover districts throughout the nation, it would unnecessarily infuse race into virtually every redistricting and would result in a substantial increase in the number of mandatory districts drawn with race as the predominant factor motivating a legislator’s decision.

Now, although we hold that Section 2 does not require crossover districts, our holding does not affect the availability of such districts as a matter of legislative choice.

Section 2 allows States to choose their own method of complying with the Voting Rights Act and that may include drawing crossover districts.

States that wish to draw crossover districts are free to do so where no other prohibition exists.

And because this case does not involve allegations of intentional and wrongful conduct, our holding does not address a situation in which a State intentionally drew district lines in order to destroy otherwise effective crossover districts, an act that would raise serious questions under both the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments.

Racial discrimination and racially polarized voting are not ancient history.

Much remains to be done to ensure that citizens of all races have equal opportunity to share and participate in our democratic processes and traditions.

It would be an irony, however, if Section 2 were interpreted to entrench racial differences by expanding a statute meant to hasten the waning of racism in American politics.

The judgment of the Supreme Court of North Carolina is affirmed.

Justice Thomas has filed an opinion concurring in the judgment in which Justice Scalia has joined.

Justice Souter has filed a dissenting opinion in which Justices Stevens, Ginsburg, and Breyer have joined.

Justice Ginsburg has filed a dissenting opinion and Justice Breyer has filed a dissenting opinion.