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Balancing minority and majority rights: lesson overview

The Supreme Court's interpretation of the Constitution can have a significant effect on the civil rights of minority groups.
When a case is argued before the Supreme Court, its interpretation of the Constitution can have a significant effect on the civil rights of minority groups. Depending on the ideological composition of the Court and the interactions between citizens and states, the Supreme Court sometimes interprets the Constitution in ways that restrict minority rights, while at other times protecting minority rights.

Key terms

“separate but equal” doctrineThe Supreme Court’s decision in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) that having separate facilities for black and white citizens was not a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause.
majority-minority districtsCongressional districts with boundaries set so that the majority of voters are from one minority group. The aim of creating districts in this way is to make it easier for citizens of a racial or ethnic minority to elect a representative who reflects their concerns, and to prevent their collective votes from being diluted when spread across several different districts.
Voting Rights Act of 1965Legislation prohibiting racial discrimination in voting, including the use of literacy tests, poll taxes, and grandfather clauses. The act also specifies that electoral district lines may not be drawn in such a way as to improperly dilute the votes of minority groups.

Cases to know

Brown v. Board of Education (1954): Oliver Brown was the father of Linda, an African American third grader who was forced to attend a segregated elementary school. Along with other African American families in the area, Brown sued the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. Under the leadership of future Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall, the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund sought to prove with this case that segregated public schools violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause. In its decision, the Supreme Court agreed, ruling that “in the field of public education, separate but equal has no place.” This ruling was a crucial victory for the civil rights movement, and later cases challenging segregation built on the precedent set in Brown.
Shaw v. Reno (1993): The US attorney general rejected a congressional reapportionment plan from North Carolina because it created only one black-majority district. In response, North Carolina submitted a second plan creating two black-majority districts, but one of those districts was an abnormal shape. Five North Carolina residents challenged the constitutionality of that district, arguing that its only purpose was to secure the election of additional black representatives. The Supreme Court ruled that although legislative redistricting must be conscious of race and comply with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, exceeding what is reasonably necessary to avoid racial imbalances is unconstitutional, representing a violation of the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Key takeaways

Supreme Court restrictions and protections of minority rights: The Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Constitution can change over time, as it did between the decisions in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) and Brown v. Board of Education (1954). In Plessy, the Court ruled that public facilities that were “separate but equal” did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment. This decision sanctioned segregation in public places all across the United States.
However, in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), the Court under Chief Justice Earl Warren ruled that race-based school segregation violates the equal protection clause, overturning Plessy. These different interpretations of the constitutionality of segregation show how at times the Court has restricted rights, and at others protected them. For example, Shaw v. Reno (1993) is an example of the Court upholding the rights of the majority, arguably at the expense of minority rights, by placing limits on majority-minority redistricting.
Influence of the composition of the court: The Court’s changing composition contributes to its different interpretations of the Constitution over time: for example, the majority of justices on the Warren Court who ruled against segregation in Brown v. Board tended to hold liberal positions and ruled in favor of expanding civil rights, many having been appointed by Democratic presidents. By the time of Shaw v. Reno, eight of nine justices were nominees of Republican presidents. With this more conservative composition, the Court interpreted the Fourteenth Amendment to uphold the rights of the racial majority (white voters) in the case of Shaw.

Review questions

In Brown v. Board (1954), how was the “separate but equal” doctrine found to restrict minority rights?
How is the decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) an example of the Supreme Court changing the interpretation of the Constitution to protect minority rights?
What is the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the constitutionality of majority-minority districts?

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