For Black History Month, we honor our hero and Founding Director, Julius Levonne Chambers, by weekly features of one of his many civil rights arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court. Mr. Chambers graduated from UNC Law School in 1962 and went on to shape the contours of of civil rights law in North Carolina and nationwide. Learn more about Chambers on our History page and on an annotated bibliography of his works. Today, Shaw v. Hunt, 517 U.S. 899 (1996).
Thanks to Center for Civil Rights Extern Leslie Caia for her help with this post.
The "snake-like" twelfth district in 1997, crossing North to South
almost the width of the state. Source.
“[F]or much of its
length, no wider than the [Interstate]-85 corridor. It winds in snake-like
fashion through tobacco country, financial centers, and manufacturing areas
‘until it gobbles in enough enclaves of black neighborhoods.’ ”
A touch Faulkner and a shade Steinbeck, one might be
surprised to learn that these lines are actually attributable to the Supreme
Court in the 1996 case Shaw v. Hunt. Turns out the “it,” rather than being a
fictional sociopolitical metaphor, was North Carolina’s proposed Twelfth
Congressional voting district.
Following the 1990 Decennial Census, which entitled North
Carolina to a new, twelfth seat in the House of Representatives, the state
officially presented its redistricting plan in 1991. Under the Voting Rights Act, North Carolina was
required to present this plan to the United States Department of Justice for
approval before it could implement the redistricting plan. The DOJ rejected the proposal, finding that the
plan failed to include a second majority-minority district when it seemed
feasible to do so. In response, the state
drafted a new plan with the “snake-like” twelfth district.
The new district was challenged by a group of white voters,
who argued that the new district constituted unconstitutional “racial
gerrymandering. ” The case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, where Center
of Civil Rights founding director Julius Chambers argued in support of the new majority-minority
and white citizens are, through this legislation, provided for the first time
in over 90 years an opportunity to now have a voice... an opportunity to have a
voice in the election of Congresspeople in North Carolina.
gone through a period in North Carolina where we have purposely discriminated
against black people.
then moved, only through the urging of legislation and this Court, to periods
where we have permitted blacks to register and vote.
moved to the Voting Rights Act.
for the first time have gotten to a point where black people will have a voice,
or an opportunity to have a voice in the election of Congresspeople, and I hope
in the Court's review of this case it appreciates that we're operating not in a
vacuum, but in a situation where we've had a history of purposely excluding
Nobody is guaranteeing any black representative. We
are only giving people a voice, and we know . . . that the Congress in enacting
section 2, felt it imperative that we create districts where people would have
a real voice and not a farce.
One of the Justices seemed
confused by Mr. Chambers use of the term “candidate of choice,” asserting he did
not know that that means. Chambers
means, Your Honor, the same thing it would mean for you if you didn't have a
voice in the election of your representative. We've gone through periods where
we know, through the legislation that's been passed in Congress, where the
interests of black people haven't been represented. What we're talking about is
ensuring at once, at least for once, a chance now to have a chance to have a
voice in the election of your representatives.
Despite the compelling argument, the Court ruled 5-4 against
the district. In an opinion by Chief Justice
Rehnquist, the majority concluded that the plan was not narrowly tailored to
meet a compelling state interest, and therefore the consideration of race
violated the 14th Amendment. Despite this decision, a redrawn
majority-minority district ultimately passed constitutional muster and has been
represented since its inception by Mel Watt, a former partner in Chambers' law
Hear Julius Chambers' argument at the Oyez website.
Posted by Mark Dorosin on Thu. February 7, 2013 5:30 PM
Race and the Law Series, Race Discrimination, Voting Rights