Shaw V. Reno

The struggle for civil rights and equality for all is synonymous with the history of America. Since its very beginning, America has experienced tension and conflict regarding what it means to truly have equality of opportunity. During the early 1990s, in an attempt to right the wrongs of the past and provide more equitable representation, the state of North Carolina created a legislative district that would ensure the election of an African American representative. Some white voters asserted that racial considerations in redistricting are wrong, even if it benefits the minority. Let's explore the 1993 case of Shaw v. Reno and the implications of racial gerrymandering. 

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Table of contents

    Shaw v. Reno Constitutional Issue

    Civil War Amendments

    After the Civil war, there were several important amendments added to the US Constitution with the intent of extending freedoms to the formerly enslaved population. The 13th Amendment abolished slavery, the 14th granted citizenship and legal protections to former slaves, and the 15th gave Black men the right to vote. Many southern states soon implemented black codes that disenfranchised black voters.

    Black Codes: Highly restrictive laws designed to limit the freedoms of black citizens. They restricted their ability to do business, buy and sell property, vote, and move about freely. These laws were intended to return the social, political, and economic order in the south to a system resembling the days of slavery.

    Black codes in the south tried to keep former slaves from voting.

    Examples of black codes that were structural barriers to voting include poll taxes and literacy tests.

    Legislation Central to Shaw v. Reno

    Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and President Johnson signed it into law. The law’s intent was to prevent states from enacting discriminatory voting laws. Part of the Act was a provision that banned the drawing of legislative districts based on race.

    Shaw v. Reno, Johnson, MLK, and Parks at VRA signing, StudySmarterFig. 1, President Johnson, Martin Luther King Jr., and Rosa Parks at the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965

    Read The Voting Rights Act of 1965 for more information about this landmark piece of legislation.

    North Carolina

    Before 1993, North Carolina had elected only seven Black representatives to the U.S. House of Representatives. After the 1990 census, only 11 members of the state’s legislature were Black, even though 20% of the population was black. After the census count, the state was reapportioned and gained another seat in the House of Representatives. After the state drew new districts to accommodate their new representative, north Carolina submitted the new legislative map to the U.S. Attorney General at the time, Janet Reno. Reno sent the map back to North Carolina and ordered the state to reconfigure the districts to create another majority African American district. The state legislature set a goal of ensuring that the new district would elect an African American representative by drawing the district in a way that the population would be majority African American.

    Reapportionment: the process of dividing up the 435 seats in the House of Representatives among the 50 states following the census.

    Every ten years, the U.S. Constitution dictates that the population be counted in the census. After the census, reapportionment may occur. Reapportionment is the redistribution of the number of representatives each state receives based on new population counts. This process is critical in a representative democracy, because the health of democracy is dependent on fair representation. After reapportionment, states may gain or lose congressional seats. If this is the case, new district boundaries must be drawn. This process is known as redistricting. State legislatures are responsible for redistricting their respective states.

    Five white voters challenged the new district, District #12 because they said it was a violation of the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause. They asserted that drawing a district with race in mind was discriminatory action, even if it were to benefit people of color, and that racial gerrymandering was unconstitutional. They filed suit under the name Shaw, and their case was dismissed in District Court, but the voters appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the complaint. The case was argued on April 20, 1993, and decided on June 28, 1993.

    Gerrymandering: Drawing legislative districts to give a political party an electoral advantage.

    The question before the Court was, “Does the 1990 North Carolina redistricting plan violate the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause?”

    14th Amendment:

    “Nor shall....... any state deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

    Shaw v. Reno, 14th Amendment, StudySmarterFig. 2, 14th Amendment

    Shaw v. Reno Arguments

    Arguments for Shaw (white voter in North Carolina)

    • The Constitution should prohibit using race as a factor in the drawing of legislative districts. The North Carolina plan is not color-blind and is the same as discrimination.
    • The traditional criteria for a legislative district are that it is compact and contiguous. District #12 is neither.
    • Dividing voters into districts because of race is the same as segregation. This doesn't matter if the intent is to benefit the minority rather than harm them.
    • Dividing districts by race assumes that Black voters will only vote for Black candidates and white voters will vote for white candidates. People have different interests and views.

    Arguments for Reno (Attorney General of the United States)

    • Representation should be reflective of the state’s population. Using race as a factor in redistricting is important and beneficial.
    • The Voting Rights Act of 1965 encourages redistricting with minority majorities where there has been discrimination in the past.
    • Districts cannot be drawn to discriminate based on race. That does not mean that using race to draw districts to benefit minorities is unconstitutional.

    Shaw v. Reno Decision

    In a 5-4 decision, the Court ruled in favor of Shaw, the five white voters in North Carolina. Justice Sandra Day O’Conner authored the majority opinion and was joined by Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justices Kennedy, Scalia, and Thomas. Justices Blackman, Stevens, Souter, and White dissented.

    The majority held that the case should be sent back to a lower court to determine if North Carolina’s redistricting plan could be justified in any other way besides race.

    The majority wrote that racial gerrymandering would

    “Balkanize us into competing racial factions; it threatens to carry us further from the goal of a political system in which race no longer matters.” 1

    The dissenting justices argued that racial gerrymandering is unconstitutional only if it benefits the group in control and harms minority voters.

    Shaw v. Reno Significance

    The case of Shaw v. Reno is significant because it created limitations on racial gerrymandering. The Court held that when districts are created and there is no other obvious reason apart from race, the district will be examined with strict scrutiny.

    Strict scrutiny: a standard, or form of judicial review, in which the government must show that the law in question serves a compelling state interest and is narrowly tailored to achieving that purpose through the least restrictive means possible.

    Shaw v. Reno Impact

    The lower court did affirm North Carolina’s redistricting plan because they determined there was a compelling state interest in safeguarding the Voting Rights Act. To illustrate the controversy surrounding Shaw v. Reno, the case was once again challenged and sent back to the Supreme Court, this time as Shaw v. Hunt. In 1996, the Court ruled that North Carolina’s redistricting plan was indeed a violation of the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause.

    The case of Shaw v. Reno affected state legislatures thereafter. States had to show that their redistricting plans could be backed up by compelling state interest and that their plan had to have the most compact districts and be the most reasonable plan possible.

    The Supreme Court of the United States has an integral job safeguarding constitutional protections and voting rights. Shaw v. Reno did not settle the issue of what constitutes irregular districts, and cases regarding gerrymandering continue to make their way to the Supreme Court.

    Shaw v. Reno - Key takeaways

      • In Shaw v. Reno, the question before the Court was, “Does the 1990 North Carolina redistricting plan violate the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause?”

      • The constitutional provision central to the landmark case of Shaw v. Reno is the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause.

      • In a 5-4 decision, the Court ruled in favor of Shaw, the five white voters in North Carolina.

      • The case of Shaw v. Reno is significant because it created limitations on racial gerrymandering

      • The case of Shaw v. Reno impacted state legislatures. States had to show that their redistricting plans could be backed up by compelling state interest and that their plan had to have the most compact districts and be the most reasonable plan possible.

      • Shaw v. Reno did not settle the issue of what constitutes irregular districts, and cases regarding gerrymandering continue to make their way to the Supreme Court.


    References

    1. "Regents of the University of California v. Bakke." Oyez, www.oyez.org/cases/1979/76-811. Accessed 5 Oct. 2022.
    2. https://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-supreme-court/509/630.html
    3. Fig. 1, President Johnson, Martin Luther King Jr., and Rosa Parks at the singing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voting_Rights_Act_of_1965#/media/File:Lyndon_Johnson_and_Martin_Luther_King,_Jr._-_Voting_Rights_Act.jpg) by Yoichi Okamoto - Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum. Image Serial Number: A1030-17a (http://www.lbjlibrary.net/collections/photo-archive/photolab-detail.html?id=222) In Public Domain
    4. Fig. 2, 14th Amendment (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fourteenth_Amendment_to_the_United_States_Constitution#/media/File:14th_Amendment_Pg2of2_AC.jpg) Credit: NARA In Public Domain
    Frequently Asked Questions about Shaw V. Reno

    Who won in the case of Shaw v. Reno?

    In a 5-4 decision, the Court ruled in favor of Shaw, the five white voters in North Carolina.

    What was the significance of Shaw v. Reno?

    The case of Shaw v. Reno is significant because it created limitations on racial gerrymandering


    What was the impact of Shaw v. Reno?

    The case of Shaw v. Reno affected state legislatures thereafter. States had to show that their redistricting plans could be backed up by compelling state interest and that their plan had to have the most compact districts and be the most reasonable plan possible.

    What did Shaw argue in Shaw v. Reno?

    One of Shaw's arguments was that dividing voters into districts because of race is the same as segregation. This doesn't matter if the intent is to benefit the minority rather than harm them.

    What is the constitutional issue of Shaw v. Reno?

    The constitutional issue central to the landmark case of Shaw v. Reno is the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Districts must be __________ and contiguous?

    Who won in the case of Shaw v. Reno?

    What was NOT settled in Shaw v. Reno?

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