Thornburg v. Gingles

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Thornburg v. Gingles (1986)
4397632Thornburg v. Gingles — Syllabus1986
Court Documents
Concurring Opinions

Supreme Court of the United States

478 U.S. 30

Thornburg, Attorney General of North Carolina, et al.  v.  Gingles, et al.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina

No. 83-1968  Argued: December 5, 1985 --- Decided: June 30, 1986

In 1982, the North Carolina General Assembly enacted a legislative redistricting plan for the State's Senate and House of Representatives. Appellees, black citizens of North Carolina who are registered to vote, brought suit in Federal District Court, challenging one single-member district and six multimember districts on the ground, inter alia, that the redistricting plan impaired black citizens' ability to elect representatives of their choice in violation of § 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. After appellees brought suit, but before trial, § 2 was amended, largely in response to Mobile v. Bolden, 446 U.S. 55 to make clear that a violation of § 2 could be proved by showing discriminatory effect alone, rather than having to show a discriminatory purpose, and to establish as the relevant legal standard the "results test." Section 2(a), as amended, prohibits a State or political subdivision from imposing any voting qualifications or prerequisites to voting, or any standards, practices, or procedures that result in the denial or abridgment of the right of any citizen to vote on account of race or color. Section 2(b), as amended, provides that § 2(a) is violated where the "totality of circumstances" reveals that "the political processes leading to nomination or election... are not equally open to participation by members of a [protected class]... in that its members have less opportunity than other members of the electorate to participate in the political process and to elect representatives of their choice," and that the extent to which members of a protected class have been elected to office is one circumstance that may be considered. The District Court applied the "totality of circumstances" test set forth in § 2(b) and held that the redistricting plan violated § 2(a) because it resulted in the dilution of black citizens' votes in all of the disputed districts. Appellants, the Attorney General of North Carolina and others, took a direct appeal to this Court with respect to five of the multimember districts.

Held: The judgment is affirmed in part and reversed in part.

590 F. Supp. 345, affirmed in part and reversed in part.

JUSTICE BRENNAN delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Parts I, II, III-A, III-B, IV-A, and V, concluding that:

1. Minority voters who contend that the multimember form of districting violates § 2 must prove that the use of a multimember electoral structure operates to minimize or cancel out their ability to elect their preferred candidates. While many or all of the factors listed in the Senate Report may be relevant to a claim of vote dilution through submergence in multimember districts, unless there is a conjunction of the following circumstances, the use of multimember districts generally will not impede the ability of minority voters to elect representatives of their choice. Stated succinctly, a bloc voting majority must usually be able to defeat candidates supported by a politically cohesive, geographically insular minority group. The relevance of the existence of racial bloc voting to a vote dilution claim is twofold: to ascertain whether minority group members constitute a politically cohesive unit and to determine whether whites vote sufficiently as a bloc usually to defeat the minority's preferred candidate. Thus, the question whether a given district experiences legally significant racial bloc voting requires discrete inquiries into minority and white voting practices. A showing that a significant number of minority group members usually vote for the same candidates is one way of proving the political cohesiveness necessary to a vote dilution claim, and consequently establishes minority bloc voting within the meaning of § 2. And, in general, a white bloc vote that normally will defeat the combined strength of minority support plus white "crossover" votes rises to the level of legally significant white bloc voting. Because loss of political power through vote dilution is distinct from the mere inability to win a particular election, a pattern of racial bloc voting that extends over a period of time is more probative of a claim that a district experiences significant polarization than are the results of a single election. In a district where elections are shown usually to be polarized, the fact that racially polarized voting is not present in one election or a few elections does not necessarily negate the conclusion that the district experiences legally significant bloc voting. Furthermore, the success of a minority candidate in a particular election does not necessarily prove that the district did not experience polarized voting in that election. Here, the District Court's approach, which tested data derived from three election years in each district in question, and which revealed that blacks strongly supported black candidates, while, to the black candidates' usual detriment, whites rarely did, satisfactorily addresses each facet of the proper standard for legally significant racial bloc voting. Pp. 52-61.
2. The language of § 2 and its legislative history plainly demonstrate that proof that some minority candidates have been elected does not foreclose a § 2 claim. Thus, the District Court did not err, as a matter of law, in refusing to treat the fact that some black candidates have succeeded as dispositive of appellees' § 2 claims. Where multimember districting generally works to dilute the minority vote, it cannot be defended on the ground that it sporadically and serendipitously benefits minority voters. Pp. 74-76.
3. The clearly-erroneous test of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 52(a) is the appropriate standard for appellate review of ultimate findings of vote dilution. As both amended § 2 and its legislative history make clear, in evaluating a statutory claim of vote dilution through districting, the trial court is to consider the "totality of circumstances" and to determine, based upon a practical evaluation of the past and present realities, whether the political process is equally open to minority voters. In this case, the District Court carefully considered the totality of the circumstances and found that in each district racially polarized voting; the legacy of official discrimination in voting matters, education, housing, employment, and health services; and the persistence of campaign appeals to racial prejudice acted in concert with the multimember districting scheme to impair the ability of geographically insular and politically cohesive groups of black voters to participate equally in the political process and to elect candidates of their choice. Pp. 77-79.

JUSTICE BRENNAN, joined by JUSTICE MARSHALL, JUSTICE BLACKMUN, and JUSTICE STEVENS, concluded in Part III-C that for purposes of § 2, the legal concept of racially polarized voting, as it related to claims of vote dilution—that is, when it is used to prove that the minority group is politically cohesive and that white voters will usually be able to defeat the minority's preferred candidates—refers only to the existence of a correlation between the race of voters and the selection of certain candidates. Plaintiffs need not prove causation or intent in order to prove a prima facie case of racial bloc voting, and defendants may not rebut that case with evidence of causation or intent. Pp. 61-73.

JUSTICE BRENNAN, joined by JUSTICE WHITE, concluded in Part IV-B, that the District Court erred, as a matter of law, in ignoring the significance of the sustained success black voters have experienced in House District 23. The persistent proportional representation for black residents in that district in the last six elections is inconsistent with appellees' allegation that black voters' ability in that district to elect representatives of their choice is not equal to that enjoyed by the white majority. P. 77.


1. Insofar as statistical evidence of divergent racial voting patterns is admitted solely to establish that the minority group is politically cohesive and to assess its prospects for electoral success, such a showing cannot be rebutted by evidence that the divergent voting patterns may be explained by causes other than race. However, evidence of the reasons for divergent voting patterns can in some circumstances be relevant to the overall vote dilution inquiry, and there is no rule against consideration of all evidence concerning voting preferences other than statistical evidence of racial voting patterns. Pp. 100-101.
2. Consistent and sustained success by candidates preferred by minority voters is presumptively inconsistent with the existence of a § 2 violation. The District Court erred in assessing the extent of black electoral success in House District 39 and Senate District 22, as well as in House District 23. Except in House District 23, despite these errors the District Court's ultimate conclusion of vote dilution is not clearly erroneous. But in House District 23 appellees failed to establish a violation of § 2. Pp. 101-105.

BRENNAN, J., announced the judgment of the Court and delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Parts I, II, III-A, III-B, IV-A, and V, in which WHITE, MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, and STEVENS, JJ., joined, an opinion with respect to Part III-C, in which MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, and STEVENS, JJ., joined, and an opinion with respect to Part IV-B, in which WHITE, J., joined. WHITE, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 82. O'CONNOR, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which BURGER, C.J., and POWELL and REHNQUIST, JJ., joined, post, p. 83. STEVENS, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, in which MARSHALL AND BLACKMUN, JJ., joined, post, p. 106.

Lacy H. Thornburg, Attorney General of North Carolina, pro se, argued the cause for appellants. With him on the briefs were Jerris Leonard, Kathleen Heenan McGuan, James Wallace, Jr., Deputy Attorney General for Legal Affairs, and Tiare B. Smiley and Norma S. Harrell, Assistant Attorneys General.

Solicitor General Fried argued the cause for the United States as amicus curiae urging reversal. With him on the brief were Assistant Attorney General Reynolds and Deputy Assistant Attorney General Cooper.

Julius LeVonne Chambers argued the case for appellees. With him on the briefs for appellees Gingles et al. were Eric Schnapper, C. Lani Guinier, and Leslie J. Winner. C. Allen Foster, Kenneth J. Gumbiner, Robert N. [p34] Hunter Jr., and Arthur J. Donaldson filed briefs for appellees Eaglin et al.[1]


  1. Daniel J. Popeo and George C. Smith filed a brief for the Washington Legal Foundation as amicus curiae urging reversal. Briefs of amici curiae urging affirmance were filed for the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation, Inc., et al. by Cynthia Hill, Maureen T. Thornton, Laughlin McDonald, and Neil Bradley; for Common Cause by William T. Lake; for the Lawyer's Committee for Civil Rights Under Law et al. by James Robertson, Harold R. Tyler, Jr., Norman Redlich, William L. Robinson, Frank R. Parker, Samuel Rabinove, and Richard T. Foltin; for James G. Martin, Governor of North Carolina, by Victor S. Friedman; for Legal Services of North Carolina by David H. Harris, Jr., Susan M. Perry, Richard Taylor, and Julian Pierce; for the Republican National Committee by Roger Allan Moore and Michael A. Hess; and for Senator Dennis Deconcini et al. by Walter J. Rockler.