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Key Redistricting Cases

The following is a brief description of key decisions made by the U.S. Supreme Court regarding redistricting.

Summary Year Case
One vote for one person 1963 Gray v. Sanders [372 U.S. 368]
"one person, one vote." Equal voting power is required under the U.S. Constitution.
Congressional districts must be equal in population 1964 Wesberry v. Sanders [376 U.S. 1]
Congressional districts must be as equal in population "as practicable." "While it may not be possible to draw congressional districts with mathematical precision, that is no excuse for ignoring our Constitution's plain objective of making equal representation for equal numbers of people the fundamental goal for the House of Representatives."
Legislative districts must be substantially equal 1964 Reynolds v. Sims [377 U.S. 533]
Legislative districts must be "substantially equal" in population. "Mathematical nicety is not a constitutional requisite."
Legislative districts must not vary more than 10 percent from ideal size 1973 Gaffney v. Cummings [412 U.S. 772]
Legislative districts must not have a total variation of more than 10 percent of the ideal size, measured from the smallest to the largest. A larger variation is permitted only if necessary based upon a "rational state policy," but that standard is tough to meet.
Congressional districts must be as equal as possible 1983 Karcher v. Daggett [462 U.S. 725]
Except in very limited circumstances, congressional districts must be as equal as possible. Inequality is permitted only if necessary to fulfill a "legitimate state objective," which is a tough standard to meet.
What is a violation of the Federal Voting Rights Act? 1986 Thornburg v. Gingles (Gingles is pronounced "Jingles") [478 U.S. 30]

To prove a violation of section 2 of the federal voting rights act, a minority group must, as a first step, prove that:

  1. it is large and compact enough to be a majority in a district (a "majority-minority" district);
  2. it is politically cohesive; and
  3. bloc voting by the white majority usually defeats the minority group's candidate of choice.
These are called "the three Gingles factors."
Federal courts must defer to state courts 1993 Growe v. Emison [507 U.S. 25]
Federal courts must defer to state courts in redistricting litigation. "...the Constitution leaves with the States primary responsibility for apportionment of their federal congressional and state legislative districts....[A] federal court must neither affirmatively obstruct state reapportionment nor permit federal litigation to be used to impede it."
Race must not be the predominant factor 1993 Shaw v. Reno [509 U.S. 630]
Racial gerrymanders designed primarily to maximize minority voting power can violate the equal protection rights of whites. Districts must be based primarily on "traditional redistricting principles," and not primarily on race.
Minority voters and voting power 1994 Johnson v. DeGrandy [512 U.S. 997]
If minority voters have effective voting majorities in a number of districts substantially proportional to their share of the population, that is a strong indication that the redistricting did not dilute their voting power.
Strange district shapes not required to meet racial requirements 1996 Bush v. Vera [517 U.S. 952]
The voting rights act does not require a state to create a district that is not reasonably compact, in order to create majority-minority districts.
Is it race, or just politics? 2001 Hunt v. Cromartie [532 U.S. 234]
A challenge to a redistricting plan on the basis that race was the predominant factor must prove that politics was not the predominant factor, where race and voting patterns are highly correlated.

For more information, you can view a videotaped presentation about redistricting presented to the House Redistricting Committee. Go to the archive page for House TV and select the video from the January 23, 2001 meeting.

August 2002