Travis Crum: “Justice Thomas Exits the Political Thicket”

The following is a guest post from Travis Crum:

The wait for Alexander v. South Carolina Conference of the NAACP is finally over. Nearly five months after the parties asked for the case to be resolved, the Court has issued a decision in its first-ever Shaw case challenging a majority-white district, and as others chronicled on this blog, Justice Alito’s majority opinion will make it harder for civil rights plaintiffs to bring Shaw challenges. But we also have an inkling of why the case took so long.

Surprisingly, Justice Thomas has renounced Shaw’s racial gerrymandering cause of action, deeming it a non-justiciable political question. Justice Thomas’s separate opinion in Alexander might be his most provocative voting rights opinion since his concurrence in Holder v. Hall.

When it was decided in 1993, Shaw was the colorblind constitution come to voting rights. Relying on the Equal Protection Clause, the Court treated racial gerrymanders as racial classifications that trigger strict scrutiny. In defending the doctrine, the conservative Justices have claimed that Shaw prevents race-based redistricting that “balkanizes” us into competing racial factions and avoids stereotypes about racial bloc voting. For decades, Thomas has been one of Shaw’s biggest cheerleaders, relying heavily on its logic in his dissent in last Term’s Allen v. Milligan.

But now, Justice Thomas has changed his mind. In many ways, Thomas’s Alexander concurrence transplants his skepticism of vote dilution doctrine to racial gerrymandering: the absence of a neutral benchmark, the entanglement of the Court in the political thicket, and frustration with strategic lawyering. Intriguingly, Thomas also implicitly responds to originalist critiques of his jurisprudence.

Justice Thomas concedes that the Equal Protection Clause is an odd font for regulating race-based redistricting given that the Fourteenth Amendment was originally understood to not mandate the enfranchisement of African Americans—a point that scholars (myself included) have highlighted for its incongruity with Thomas’s originalism. Thomas then turns his attention to the Fifteenth Amendment, narrowing its scope to vote-denial claims in a short paragraph. As I explain in a forthcoming paper in the Columbia Law Review entitled The Riddle of Race-Based Redistricting, Thomas is right to be skeptical of the Equal Protection Clause, and he is also on the right track when it comes to racial gerrymandering claims—but not vote dilution ones—when it comes to the original understanding of the Fifteenth Amendment. (This paper is not on SSRN yet because I’ve been waiting to incorporate Alexander, and the Court’s delay went from days to weeks to months. I’ll post the paper in June, and I am happy to share a current draft with voting rights academics/lawyers).

The upshot of Justice Thomas’s concurrence is that he is no longer willing to police race-based redistricting. What dose this mean going forward? Thomas will vote against any Shaw challenge to redistricting plans. This will shake up the Court’s line-up. Of course, we should expect fewer Shaw suits brought by civil rights groups after this decision and because Milligan reinvigorated Section 2 claims. On the flip side, the white plaintiffs in the ongoing Louisiana Shaw challenge no longer have Thomas’s vote in their corner. Thus, there’s no vote from Justice Thomas on the merits in thatcase—which is likely to be heard next Term—to invalidate Section 2 of the VRA. Counting to five to invalidate Section 2 just got slightly more difficult.

One last point. If you had asked a Court watcher in the 1990s whether Justice Thomas would ever reject Shaw or whether liberal Justices would be enthusiastically defending it, you would gotten a resounding “no.” And yet here we are. I predict that Justice Thomas’s Alexander concurrence will become a staple of election law classes, and we’ll have to wait and see whether he convinces any other conservative Justices, as he has so often done in the past.

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