Shaw v. Reno (1993)

Partisan gerrymandering so one party wins every election, yes please.
Racial gerrymandering? No thank you, says SCOTUS


partisan gerrymandering

racial gerrymandering

Voting Rights Act, 1965

Facts of the Case

racial representation in Congress

Constitutional Principle/Legal Question

Equal Protection Clause, 14th Amendment

Decision & Why it Matters

racial gerrymandering violated Equal Protection Clause

Shaw v. Reno


Shaw v. Reno, a landmark United States Supreme Court case decided in 1993, is a pivotal moment in the legal battles over redistricting and racial gerrymandering. The case addressed the complex issues of race, representation, and the drawing of electoral district boundaries.

The controversy began when the U.S. Department of Justice rejected North Carolina’s initial 1990 congressional reapportionment plan for failing to create a majority-black district, as required under the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to ensure minority representation. In response, North Carolina submitted a second plan that included two majority-black districts. One of these districts, District 12, was unusually shaped, stretching approximately 160 miles along Interstate 85 and was very narrow at some points. Critics argued that the district’s bizarre shape was an attempt to increase black voter concentration, a practice known as racial gerrymandering.

A group of North Carolina residents, led by Ruth Shaw, challenged the constitutionality of this district, arguing that its design was based solely on racial considerations, violating the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Legal Question

The central question in Shaw v. Reno was whether a congressional district, designed for the purpose of ensuring a majority-black population, and which had an unusually shaped boundary, violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The Court’s Decision

The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, ruled that the redistricting plan raised a valid constitutional issue under the Equal Protection Clause. The Court held that although the redistricting plan might be well-intentioned in aiming to comply with the Voting Rights Act by ensuring minority representation, race could not be the predominant factor in drawing district boundaries. The Court stated that any redistricting plan that uses race as the sole criterion must be held to a standard of strict scrutiny, the highest standard of review used by courts to evaluate the constitutionality of a law’s restriction on individual rights.

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, writing for the majority, emphasized that while creating majority-minority districts under the Voting Rights Act is lawful, such districts must be held to a standard that scrutinizes the shape and demographics to ensure they do not segregate voters on the basis of race.


Shaw v. Reno is significant for several reasons:

  1. Racial Gerrymandering: The case established that redistricting plans which result in racial gerrymandering could be challenged under the Equal Protection Clause.
  2. Strict Scrutiny for Racial Redistricting: It set a precedent that districts created with race as the predominant factor must meet the strict scrutiny standard, meaning the state must show a compelling governmental interest and that the districts are narrowly tailored to achieve that interest.
  3. Impact on Voting Rights Act: The decision impacted how the Voting Rights Act was implemented, balancing the act’s requirements against the constitutional prohibition of racial segregation in voting.
  4. Continued Legal Battles: Shaw v. Reno opened the door to further legal challenges against redistricting plans across the country, leading to a series of important cases on racial gerrymandering and the role of race in redistricting.

Shaw v. Reno was a groundbreaking case that highlighted the tension between efforts to ensure fair minority representation in Congress and the constitutional prohibition against racial discrimination. By ruling that race-based redistricting must be subject to strict scrutiny, the Supreme Court set limits on the extent to which race can be used as a criterion in drawing electoral districts. This case underscores the complexities of balancing racial justice with constitutional principles, a challenge that continues to resonate in the ongoing debates over redistricting and voting rights in the United States.