Archived: Supreme Court Rules Against Conservatives in Voting Rights Case

The Supreme Court unanimously voted Monday that states may continue to uphold the long-held “one person, one vote” rule when drawing state legislative districts.

Had the appellants won the case, political power in Texas would have deviated from urban, younger and overall Democratic areas in favor of rural, older, whiter and more Republican districts. This also would have significantly impacted the Latino community, which makes up more than half of Texas’s total population.

In Evenwel v. Abbott, all eight justices concluded that “a State may draw its legislative districts based on total population,” according to the opinion of the court written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Six of the justices joined Justice Ginsburg’s opinion. The remaining two, Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas, wrote separate but concurring opinions of their own.

Residents of rural Texas districts Sue Evenwel and Edward Pfenninger filed the lawsuit. Edward Blum, who directs conservative group Project on Fair Representation, backed the case. Evenwel and Pfenninger argued that including non-voters in the count “dilutes their votes in relation to voters in other Senate districts, in violation of the one-person, one-vote principle of the Equal Protection Clause.”

Prior to this vote, the Supreme Court had never explicitly stated whether states are required to use their voter or total populations when drawing state districts. However, all 50 states have already been using their total populations, determined by the U.S. Census, to draw state legislative districts “for decades, even centuries,” Justice Ginsburg noted in her opinion.

States are allowed to veer slightly from their actual populations “to accommodate traditional districting objectives” but by no more than 10 percent. Only seven states steer significantly from their true population numbers, the majority opinion reported. Various states, for instance, exclude nonpermanent residents (such as nonresident members of the military) and prison inmates who resided out of state prior to being convicted.

Justice Ginsburg also noted that the nonvoting population still needs a voice: “Nonvoters have an important stake in many policy debates. By ensuring that each representative is subject to requests and suggestions from the same number of constituents, total population apportionment promotes equitable and effective representation.” This reasoning echoes historic debates that surrounded the Fourteenth Amendment, which states, “Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed.”

The justices did not explicitly conclude that states have to use their total populations, though, but rather said the nation’s longstanding history of using the total population has set the acceptable precedent. Justice Ginsburg said “it is plainly permissible” for states to use the total population rather than the voter population.

Justice Alito wrote in his opinion that this is not the time to give one answer of how states should draw their districts. He called the debate “an important and sensitive question” and said it can be considered “if and when we have before us a state districting a plan that, unlike the current Texas plan, uses something other than the total population” as its way ofdrawing state districts.

Justice Thomas, meanwhile, wrote that there is “no such basis” for the one person, one vote rule and rather stated that “no single ‘correct’ method of apportioning state legislatures” exists. He instead concluded that it should be left up to the states to decide.

However, Nathaniel Persily, a law professor at Stanford Law School, supported Texas and explained that what the appellants proposed is not possible at this time. In an amicus brief for the case, Persily explained, “A national database of eligible voters does not exist and will not exist in the foreseeable future.”

In a statement, Blum said he, Evenwel and Pfenninger were “disappointed” by the verdict and that this is likely not the last time the Supreme Court will debate this topic.

“The issue of voter equality in the United States is not going to go away,” he said. “Some Supreme Court cases grow in importance over time and Evenwel v. Abbott may likely be one of those cases.”

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton took to Twitter to express her satisfaction with the ruling.

The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights’ President and Executive Director Kristen Clarke also applauded the decision, saying the ruling supports “one of the most basic principles in American democracy.”

“Today’s decision renders null and void efforts to marginalize minority communities from having an equal seat at the table in our political process,” Clarke stated.

Blum and his conservative group also backed Fisher v. University of Texas, a case regarding affirmative action at the University of Texas. Fisher alleges that the University of Texas-Austin rejected her from the school and instead opted to enroll minority students who had lower grades than Fisher. This case is currently still being heard.

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