Rob Burgess

Editor’s note: As per usual for this time of year, the Supreme Court issued a slew of consequential rulings recently on a bevy of hot-button issues. This is the third in a three-part series exploring a few of them.

In the now five years I’ve written this series, this is the third year in a row I find myself writing about the 14th Amendment. It’s one of three Reconstruction Amendments passed in the five years after the Civil War.

“All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside,” reads Section 1. “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

That last bit is known as the Equal Protection Clause. This term, the Supreme Court confronted two states that explicitly disenfranchised minority voters and definitely violated those words. (An important note: both cases excluded Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch.)


Bethune-Hill v. Virginia State Board of Elections was argued Dec. 5, 2016, and decided March 1 by the eight-member bench.

“After the 2010 census, the Virginia State Legislature drew new lines for 12 state legislative districts, with a goal of ensuring that each district would have a black voting-age population of at least 55 percent,” read the case’s syllabus. “Certain voters filed suit, claiming that the new districts violated the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. State legislative officials intervened to defend the plan.”

The vote was unanimous, with the exception of Associate Justice Clarence Thomas who wrote a partial concurrence and dissent. Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority. (Don’t retire, Anthony!) Before remanding the case back to the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Kennedy agreed with the lower court on just one of the 12 congressional districts.


Cooper v. Harris also was argued Dec. 5, 2016, and decided May 22.

“This case concerns North Carolina’s redrawing of two congressional districts, District 1 and District 12, after the 2010 census,” reads the case’s syllabus. “Prior to that redistricting, neither district had a majority black voting-age population, but both consistently elected the candidates preferred by most African-American voters. The new map significantly altered both District 1 and District 12. The state needed to add almost 100,000 people to District 1 to comply with the one-person-one-vote principle, and it chose to take most of those people from heavily black areas of Durham — increasing the district’s BVAP from 48.6 percent to 52.7 percent.”

The court was divided 5-3. Associate Justices Elena Kagan, Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor ruled against the state. Only Associate Justice Samuel Alito, Kennedy and Chief Justice John Roberts voted the opposite way.

“We uphold the District Court’s conclusions that racial considerations predominated in designing both District 1 and District 12,” wrote Kagan for the majority. “For District 12, that is all we must do, because North Carolina has made no attempt to justify race-based districting there. For District 1, we further uphold the District Court’s decision that [the Voting Rights Act of 1965] gave North Carolina no good reason to reshuffle voters because of their race.”

Rob Burgess, Tribune city editor, may be reached at

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