Abrams v. Johnson
Decided June 19, 1997; 521 US 74

Black voters in Georgia contend their voting rights were violated by court's redistricting plan


A. Issues Discussed: Civil Rights (voting), racial gerrymandering, equal protection, 15th Amendment

B. Legal Questions Presented:

1. Did the District Court exceed it’s remedial power in making changes to Georgia’s previous districting plan? 

2. Did the court’s plan violate the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and/or the constitutional "one person, one vote" requirement?

A. Background:

The 1990 census revealed that population growth in Georgia entitled the state to one additional congressional district.  The legislature redrew its district line and created two majority African-American districts, adding the second district in response to demands by the United States Department of Justice (DOJ). Under the authority of the Voting Rights Act, DOJ refused to approve the new plan and placed pressure on Georgia's legislature to create a third majority African-American district, and the legislature conceded. 

White voters in one of the new districts filed suit (Miller v. Johnson, 1995), claiming that the new plan was racial gerrymandering in violation of the 14th Amendment.  The US Supreme Court sided with the white voters and ruled the new plan as unconstitutional because it relied on race as the predominant factor.

On remand from the US Supreme Court, the federal district court in Georgia over-seeing the case waited for the legislature to re-draw its new districting plan.  However, the legislature could not reach an agreement.  As a result, the district court drew it's own plan, creating only one African-American district. The 1996 general elections were held under this new plan designed by the district court.

Appellants, DOJ and African American voters (led by Lucious Abrams), filed suit claiming that the district court should have retained at least two African-American districts.  The US Supreme Court granted certiorari to review the case again.
B. Counsel of Record:
Opposing Side
Deputy Solicitor General Waxman argued the cause for the United States.  With him on the briefs were Acting Solicitor General Dellinger, Assistant Attorney General Patrick, Deputy Solicitor General Bender, James A. Feldman, Steven H. Rosenbaum, and Miriam R. Eisenstein.  Laughlin McDonald argued the cause for appellants Abrams et al.  With him on the briefs were Neil Bradley, Mary Wyckoff, Elaine R. Jones, Norman J. Chachkin, Jacqueline Berrien, and Gerald R. Weber. Michael J. Bowers, Attorney General of Georgia, argued the cause for appellees Miller et al.  With him on the briefs were Dennis R. Dunn, Senior Assistant Attorney General, and David F. Walbert, Special Assistant Attorney General.  A. Lee Parks argued the cause and filed a brief for appellees Johnson et al.
C. The Arguments:
Opposing Side
"The district court abused its equitable powers in completely redrawing the congressional map of Georgia…  The district court ignored the state's traditional interest in preserving the core of existing districts… The court’s plan moved incumbents and pitted them against each other in a number of districts in disregard for the state's traditional policy of avoiding contests between incumbents.  Two of the three dislocated incumbents were black, and only these two were placed in new districts with other incumbents.

The court's plan shifted nearly a third of the state's population into new districts.  Least-change plans proposed by the parties and amici showed that it was possible to draw far less disruptive plans that at the same time cured the constitutional defects in the prior plan…  Proposed remedial plans were also submitted by the parties and amici which showed that a compact second majority black district can be drawn in Georgia while adhering to the state’s traditional districting principles.

The court's plan violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.  Blacks in Georgia are geographically compact.  As appears from various plans submitted to the district court, it is clearly possible to draw two reasonably compact majority black congressional districts in the state.

The district court's plan is retrogressive in violation of Section 5.  The court’s plan reduced the number of majority black districts from the levels [in previous legislative plans]…  Minorities admittedly have fewer electoral opportunities under the court ordered plan than under any of these pre-existing plans. 

The court's plan does not comply with one person, one vote.  Congressional redistricting is held to even stricter standards than legislative redistricting.  Other courts have had no difficulty in drafting or approving plans with zero deviations."

Summary of Amicus Brief in Support of Appellants in Abrams v. Johnson, available at www.aclu.org


Opposing Side
The American Civil Liberties Union filed a brief as amicus curiae in support of Appellants.
No amici curiae briefs were filed on behalf of Appellee.

"Under the circumstances, the district court was justified in making substantial changes to the existing plan consistent with Georgia’s traditional districting principles, and considering race as a factor but not allowing it to predominate…  It would have been most problematic for the trial court to insist on retaining a second majority black district without regard to other, neutral districting factors.  The trial court did not adopt this course.  Instead, it gave careful consideration to creation of a second black district on grounds that a black voting population was one factor in drawing a district; and it concluded it could not draw the second majority black district without allowing that one consideration to predominate over other traditional and neutral districting principles, principles which were a valid expression of legislative policy...

The court ordered plan is not violative of §2 of the Voting Rights Act…Under the circumstances, we cannot say the district court clearly erred in finding insufficient racial polarization in voting to meet the... requirements.  The results of the 1996 general elections tend to support the district court’s earlier finding of 'a general willingness of white voters to vote for black candidates.'

Appellants contend the District Court’s plan violates the constitutional guarantee of one person, one vote... Here the district court was not designing districts to remedy a one person, one vote violation, but courts should keep in mind that 'absolute population equality [is] the paramount objective...' Slight deviations are allowed under certain circumstances…  In any case, even if we had found the court plan's population deviation unacceptable, the solution would not be adoption of the constitutionally infirm, because race based, plans of appellants.

The task of redistricting is best left to state legislatures, elected by the people and as capable as the courts, if not more so, in balancing the myriad factors and traditions in legitimate districting policies.  Here, the legislative process was first distorted and then unable to reach a solution.  The District Court was left to embark on a delicate task with limited legislative guidance.  The court was careful to take into account traditional state districting factors, and it remained sensitive to the constitutional requirement of equal protection of the law."

Held: The judgment of the District Court is affirmed.
Justice Vote: 4 Pro vs. 5 Con

  • Kennedy, J.  Con  (Wrote majority opinion)
  • Rehnquist, W. Con  (Joined majority opinion)
  • O’Connor, S. Con  (Joined majority opinion)
  • Scalia, A.  Con  (Joined majority opinion)
  • Thomas, C.  Con  (Joined majority opinion)
  • Breyer, S.  Pro  (Wrote dissenting opinion)
  • Stevens, J.  Pro  (Joined minority opinion, joined Breyer’s dissent)
  • Souter, D.  Pro  (Joined minority opinion, joined Breyer’s dissent)
  • Ginsburg, R. Pro  (Joined minority opinion, joined Breyer’s dissent)

The ACLU submitted four districting plans to the District Court and filed an amicus brief in support of Appellants, urging reversal.  The United States Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the District Court in a 5-4 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent loss.