Shaw v. Reno: What It Means, Does Not Mean, and Why
Shaw v. Reno is the most influential political representation case since the passage of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) in 1965. 1 Shaw I is not simply a VRA case; it is also a 14th Amendment, Equal Protection Clause case. It refocuses the debate over fair representation on its elements: Who is represented? How should the government ensure fair representation? Do some groups have a special claim on representation? The affirmative grant by the state to a minority group in the form of a majority-minority district, as was the issue in Shaw, must be justified. 2 As such, an effective narrative for majority-minority districting characterizes the need for more representation as compelling, and presents a remedy through the least burdensome means. 3 This chapter reviews how Shaw and subsequent cases reappraise the elements of fair representation in a newly emergent liberal rhetoric and brings into question certain justifications for majority-minority districting. Indeed, the rhetoric of liberalism successfully challenged the political edifice of the VRA and fundamentally altered its interpretation.
Before the passage of the VRA in 1965, reapportionment and voting rights cases were decided on constitutional grounds. 4 This was true of such landmark decisions as Wesberry v. Sanders, Gomillion v. Lightfoot, and Reynolds v. Sims, as well as the "White Primary" cases. 5 The difficulty with basing a cause of action on the Constitution is the general reticence of federal judges and Supreme Court justices to decide a case on constitutional grounds. If given the chance, courts prefer to avoid constitutional issues, especially those that might put them into conflict with higher courts or other branches of government. Instead, courts decide cases as narrowly as possible, and avoid constitutional issues by making factual distinctions among cases, issues, and facts, and by reinterpreting the meaning of statutes. This may entail creatively reading the statute that governs the particular fact situation in dispute.