Thornburg v. Gingles

PETITIONER: Lacy H. Thornburg, Attorney General of North Carolina
RESPONDENT: Ralph Gingles et al.
LOCATION: North Carolina General Assembly

DOCKET NO.: 83-1968
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1981-1986)

CITATION: 478 US 30 (1986)
ARGUED: Dec 04, 1985
DECIDED: Jun 30, 1986

Charles Fried - Solicitor General, Department of Justice, argued the cause for the United States as amicus curiae urging reversal
Julius LeVonne Chambers - on behalf of the Appellees
Julius L. Chambers - for appellees
Lacy H. Thornburg - Attorney General of North Carolina, appearing pro se, on behalf of the Appellants

Facts of the case

The North Carolina General Assembly passed a redistricting plan for the state's Senate and House of Representatives. Black citizens of North Carolina alleged that the plan created seven new districts where blacks would not be able to elect representatives of their choosing. They filed suit in a District Court claiming that this violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. Before the District Court could hear the case, Congress amended Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act in order to clarify that voting violations needed only to have a "discriminatory effect" and required no "discriminatory purpose." Considering the "totality of circumstances" of the redistricting plan, the District Court ruled that six of the new districts violated the newly amended Voting Rights Act by diluting the power of the black vote. The North Carolina Attorney General appealed the decision directly to the Supreme Court.


Did the District Court err by holding that a North Carolina redistricting plan unlawfully discriminated against blacks in six voting districts?

Media for Thornburg v. Gingles

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - December 04, 1985 in Thornburg v. Gingles

Warren E. Burger:

We will hear arguments first this morning in 83-1968, Thornburg against Gingles.

Mr. Attorney General.

Lacy H. Thornburg:

Mr. Chief Justice, may it please the Honorable Court, this case in its final posture before the Court involves four multi-member House legislative districts and one multi-member Senate district in the State of North Carolina.

Two other districts, House District 8 and Senate District 2 are no longer part of this appeal.

The primary challenge to the lower court's judgment by the original defendants is based on that court's interpretation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act as amended in 1982.

The Court found infirmities in each of the districts that were challenged, and ultimately fashioned a remedy requiring the use of majority black legislative single-member districts where they could be drawn, and in each of the multi-member districts as they were constituted originally, they largely followed county lines and consisted of whole counties.

From this decision the defendants sought review, and the Solicitor General joined in that request.

We ask this Honorable Court to apply Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act so as to afford due respect to the intentions of the Congress without endorsing the undue expansion of these intentions by the lower courts.

We would encourage a decision that would enunciate definitive yet fair and realistic standards for evaluating the election practices in all jurisdictions, and we do this to the end that this Honorable Court's determinations might acknowledge the right of those jurisdictions to determine their own electoral affairs so long as they neither intentionally or unintentionally deny to any minority group the emphatic opportunity to participate fully and equally in the electoral process.

We do so to the additional end that your ruling might foster political unity as opposed to disunity among the electorate.

The Panel Court suggested that it was paying adherence to the proposition that no protected class of persons has a constitutional right or statutory right to proportional representation, or to guaranteed political success.

But pursuant to Section 2, the Court found that it had been shown by the plaintiffs that North Carolina's political process was not open equally to participation by the racial minorities, and this was purportedly based on the use of certain factors that were denoted by the Senate in the legislative history of the Section 2 amendment.

These factors are certainly well-known to the Court and should have been imported to the district court, not as a mechanical checklist of conclusive indicators, but rather a set of guidelines for determining whether the characteristics of the jurisdictions being examined parallel those of jurisdictions examined in the cases to which the Senate referred, particularly White versus Regester, Whitcomb versus Chavis, and Zimmer versus McKeithen.

And, we submit that had the district court applied these factors in the manner intended, giving primary weight all the while to the words of the statute and properly analyzing the cases from which these factors came, then North Carolina would have prevailed in that Court.

Byron R. White:

Well, don't you think they purported to apply them?

Lacy H. Thornburg:

I think, Your Honor, that they sought to apply them more as a checklist rather than as an indicator of what actually had occurred, which leads me to call the Court's attention--

Byron R. White:

The answer is, yes, they did purport to apply them?

Lacy H. Thornburg:

--Oh, I think they purported to apply them but--

Byron R. White:

You disagree with the way they--

Lacy H. Thornburg:

--Certainly do.

And we say, if Your Honor please, that the counties and the districts that are involved in this case certainly in no way can be equated to the counties of Fair County and Dallas County which are the two counties in Texas that were involved in the White decision.

Durham County, North Carolina, for example, with a 28.6 percent black registration has had proportional representation in the North Carolina House since 1973.

Two of the five county commissioners are black.

Two of the four district court judges are black.

All of them ran at large.

The Chairman of the Democratic Party from '69 to '79 and from '83 to present is black, and one of the three members of the Board of Elections from 1970 to 1981 was black, when a member resigned and went on to North Carolina State Board of Elections.

Wayne County, with a 15.1 percent black registration, has a representative serving his second term.

The sheriff of Wayne County, elected by the at-large electorate, is black.

One of seven County Commissioners, two of eight District Court judges, a black Senator from '75 through '78, and from '77 to the present a member of the Board of Elections.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

--General Thornburg, is it your position that the court below was required to focus on the individual election districts rather than the state as a whole?