Shaw v. Reno (1993)

Shaw v. Reno, 509 U.S. 630 (1993)

Case Summary

North Carolina’s first redistricting plan following the 1990 Census was rejected because it had created only one minority-majority district, while in the judgment of the US Attorney General, there could have been two. This led to a new redistricting plan that involved a heavily gerrymandered district that used interstate highways to connect high density minority areas. The plan was challenged by white voters who claimed that the plan was racially discriminatory, its only purpose being to elect a black representative. The case reached the Supreme Court after being rejected by the district court, which ruled that the plaintiffs had failed to state a constitutional basis for their complaint.


The Court ruled that North Carolina’s plan, though facially race neutral, was of such an unnatural shape that it went beyond what was reasonable in order to avoid racial imbalance. The Court ruled that the plaintiffs did present a valid equal protection challenge that must be examined under strict scrutiny. As such, efforts to satisfy §5 or §2 of the Voting Rights Act must be narrowly tailored to those purposes, and does not give the government free reign to gerrymander districts based solely on race. The case was remanded to determine if there was a demonstratable, compelling government interest that justified the plan under strict review.

Impact on Redistricting

This case established, at least in legal principle, the idea that creating minority-majority districts did not override all other considerations, such as compactness, when drawing districts. Shaw required future line-drawers to justify their plans in terms of a compelling government interest, and show that theirs was the most reasonable plan possible that satisfied that interest. It should be noted, however, that racial consideration still often play a powerful, sometimes dominant role in redistricting efforts. Even in the case of the North Carolina district in question, the District Court on remand found the plan did satisfy the strict scrutiny standard, leading to a subsequent case, Shaw v. Hunt, in which the Supreme Court reversed again.