Academic journal article Harvard Law Review

Constitutional Law - Equal Protection - First Circuit Holds That Prison Gerrymandering Does Not Violate the Equal Protection Clause

Academic journal article Harvard Law Review

Constitutional Law - Equal Protection - First Circuit Holds That Prison Gerrymandering Does Not Violate the Equal Protection Clause

Article excerpt

CONSTITUTIONAL LAW--EQUAL PROTECTION--FIRST CIRCUIT HOLDS THAT PRISON GERRYMANDERING DOES NOT VIOLATE THE EQUAL PROTECTION CLAUSE.--Davidson v. City of Cranston, 837 f.3d 135 (1st cir. 2016).

In a nation with extraordinarily high (1)--and racially disparate (2)--incarceration rates, decisions about where to count incarcerated people for the purpose of redistricting implicate issues of equal protection, political power, and racial equality. (3) Consequently, prison gerrymandering--the practice of counting incarcerated people as residents of prisons when drawing electoral districts (4)--has become an issue that has divided courts and led to calls for reform at the federal, (5) state, (6) and local (7) levels. Recently, in Davidson v. City of Cranston, the First Circuit held that the City of Cranston, Rhode Island did not violate the Equal Protection Clause by counting prison inmates as residents of one of the City's six wards when it redistricted. (9) To reach this conclusion, the court relied on the Supreme Court's decision in Evenwel v. Abbott, (10) which approved broadly of total-population-based approaches to redistricting. (11) While Evenwel might appear to sanction Cranston's redistricting plan, the First Circuit's decision is at odds with Evenwel's underlying reasoning and emphasis on representational equality. In addition, it is critical to note that even if the First Circuit had resolved this tension by requiring Cranston to exclude inmates from its population baseline, only partial relief from the distortions of prison gerrymandering would result; to fully remedy the systemic harms at issue, the state legislature must require that prisoners be counted as residents of their home communities at both the state and local level.

The City of Cranston is divided into six municipal wards from which residents elect representatives to Cranston's City Council and School Committee. (12) In 2012, the City adopted a redistricting plan that drew new boundaries for the wards based on new U.S. Census data. (13) Those boundaries placed Rhode Island's state prison, the Adult Correctional Institution (ACI), and its 3433 prisoners in Ward Six. (14) The inclusion of the prison comported with the Rhode Island Constitution, which stipulates that "state legislative districts 'shall be constituted on the basis of population and ... shall be as nearly equal in population ... as possible,'" (15) and with the City's charter, which states that wards shall have "as nearly as possible an equal number of inhabitants as determined by the most recent federal decennial census." (16) Each ward included approximately, 13,500 people; thus, ACI inmates comprised approximately twenty-five percent of the population of Ward Six. (17)

In 2014, the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island (ACLU) and a group of Cranston residents filed a complaint against the City in the United States District Court for the District of Rhode Island. (18) They asserted that Cranston's redistricting plan violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment (19) because counting inmates as part of Ward Six "inflates the voting strength and political influence of the residents" in that ward, thereby diluting the political power of people living outside the ward. (20) After the City filed a motion to dismiss, which was denied, both parties filed cross motions for summary judgment. The following year, the district court granted summary judgment for the ACLU and Cranston residents. (22)

In its analysis, the district court looked to the Supreme Court's decision in Evenwel v. Abbott and to a pre-Evenwel redistricting case in Florida, Calvin v. Jefferson County Board of Commissioners, (23) which also dealt with prisoners. First, the district court rejected the idea that Evenwel simply endorsed the constitutionality of total-population-based apportionment. It noted that such a perspective "overlook[s] the Supreme Court's emphasis on the conceptual basis of representational equality. …

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