Race, Voting Rights, and the Genius of Justice Souter

One of the reasons that the Supreme Court will miss David Souter is that he possesses a gift that we seek but rarely find in a judge – the ability to step outside the bounds of his experience. Nowhere is this more evident than in Justice Souter's astute take on the fraught relationship between race and politics, a topic that has dominated the Supreme Court’s docket for much of his tenure.

Souter is perhaps the least politically connected person on the Court, and his home state of New Hampshire is a racially homogenous area that hasn’t had much of a record either way with the Voting Rights Act. Despite his lack of experience, Souter has carved out a position on the Voting Rights Act that is both more nuanced and more pragmatic than his brethren’s. If you want to know what makes Souter a great judge, take a look at his voting-rights opinions.

Because Souter’s voting-rights jurisprudence is tied up with his legacy on the bench, it is depressing that his last term on the Supreme Court may coincide with the last term of the Voting Rights Act as we know it. Based on Wednesday’s oral argument, many now expect the Supreme Court to strike down one of the main provisions of the Voting Rights Act, over what seems likely to be a vigorous Souter dissent. There is nothing simple about voting-rights litigation. Race gets even more complicated when poured into the crucible of partisan politics. On basic questions of race, such as affirmative action, the Court has long divided into two basic camps, with the conservatives flogging the ideal of color blindness while liberals idealistically rely on rights and courts as the solution to inequality.

Neither position translates well to the context of voting. It is odd for the conservatives to demand that the state be color-blind when voters are decidedly not. In a world of racial bloc voting, race-blind districting is simply a recipe for disempowering racial minorities. But the dominant story of race told by the liberals on the Court – one that treats racial minorities as “objects of judicial solicitude, rather than as efficacious political actors in their own right,” in the words of Stanford law professor Pamela Karlan – similarly misses something important. It misses the idea that putting representatives of the minority community into positions of power gives racial minorities the power to protect themselves, so that eventually they no longer need be wards of the Court.

Souter understands both of these things. Consider his take on majority-minority districting, a practice about which the Court has been fighting since before Souter joined the Court. The Court’s conservatives generally see majority-minority districts as handouts, akin to affirmative action and business set-asides. The Court’s liberals generally view majority-minority districts as unfortunate necessities, a race-conscious strategy for integrating legislatures when voters won't.

Souter sees majority-minority districts for what they are – a necessary part of the dynamic by which outsiders find their way to political integration. Majority-minority districts are designed to reduce the salience of race in politics, contrary to the conservative view. But they do so not by producing legislatures that appeal to some aesthetic ideal of diversity but by pulling racial minorities into the political system and giving them a stake in it. In a case on race and redistricting, Souter argued that majority-minority districts were no different from the Polish and Lithuanian wards that once dominated Chicago or the Irish and Italian wards of Boston. In his words, these districts “allowed ethnically identified voters and their preferred candidates to enter the mainstream of American politics,” eventually reducing the salience of ethnic identity as these communities gained political muscle and began to think of themselves as part of the system, not outside of it.

Souter was not naive. He was well aware that pork and patronage played a role here, that there was an ugly side to political integration of this sort. I think his references to cities dominated by machine politics were clear-eyed and deliberate. Even as a man who has quite self-consciously lived his life outside of politics, he understood its dynamism and had an astute sense of how to harness it. Even as a person whose views presumably line up well with the moderate Republican politics of New Hampshire, he grasped the gravitational pull that political power can have on outsiders, the material and dignitary reasons why every group wants to elect a champion of its own, the ways in which being able to identify “my guy” in the legislature furthers rather than undermines the long-term project of integration.

Consistent with this dynamic view, Souter has never thought of majority-minority districts as a stop-gap measure, something that would guarantee racially integrated legislatures until voters became willing to create them on their own (conditions that election scholars call “normal politics”). Instead, he has understood majority-minority districts as the means by which we get to normal politics. Souter has always insisted that racial minorities were not immune from the obligation to “pull, haul, and trade” when conditions permitted. And he has been an ardent supporter of efforts to foster coalitions between white voters and voters of color -- provided those strategies did not deprive racial minorities of the ability to do what white voters do routinely and unthinkingly: choose a champion. But while Souter has recognized that times are changing and has been more than happy to adapt to those changes, he has also plainly been of the view that we haven’t yet reached the other end of the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

If Souter’s questions at last Wednesday’s oral argument and prior opinions are any guide (and I have no inside knowledge), Souter does not think it is time to retire the Voting Rights Act. Were I not a loyal Souter clerk who thinks he’s entitled to retire after devoting his life to public service, I’d be tempted to say the same of him.