The Chambers series: Shaw v. Hunt (1996)

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Julius Chambers

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.

12th N.C. House District
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 district.

Black 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.

We have gone through a period in North Carolina where we have purposely discriminated against black people.

We've then moved, only through the urging of legislation and this Court, to periods where we have permitted blacks to register and vote.

We've moved to the Voting Rights Act.

We now 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 black people.

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 explained:

It 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 firm.

Hear Julius Chambers' argument at the Oyez website.

Posted by Mark Dorosin on Thu. February 7, 2013 5:30 PM
Categories: Race and the Law Series, Race Discrimination, Voting Rights
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