The case involved the redistricting of North Carolina after the 1990 census. North Carolina submitted to the Department of Justice a map with one majority-minority black district—that is, a district with a black majority. The Department of Justice believed that the state could have drawn another such majority-minority district in order to improve representation of black voters rather than including them all within one district.
The state revised its map and submitted a new plan, this one with two majority-minority districts. The proposed 12th district was 160 miles (260 km) long, winding through the state to connect various areas having in common only a large black population. A federal District Court dismissed a lawsuit by some North Carolina voters on the grounds that they had no claim for relief under a standard set by a previous Supreme Court case, United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburgh v. Carey.
Justice Sandra Day O’Connor delivered the opinion of the Court, which reversed that of the District Court. She described the shape of the new district as “bizarre” and said such a district “bears an uncomfortable resemblance to political apartheid.” The Court found that if a redistricting map is “so bizarre on its face that it is ‘unexplainable on grounds other than race’,” that a claim for relief under the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution is available to plaintiffs.
Such redistricting will be held unconstitutional if it is found to be intended to segregate voters by race and this segregation cannot be justified under a standard of strict scrutiny. Actions subject to this standard must satisfy three conditions: a compelling government interest, narrowly tailored to achieve that goal, and the least restrictive means for achieving that interest.
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