The issue in Perry essentially was whether a District Court should assume that a "covered jurisdiction" is up to no good and treat new election procedures it creates as deeply suspect. To understand what that means, understand that the VRA has two major sections -- § 2, which covers the entire country and forbids racial discrimination in elections and voting, and § 5, which covers only states or counties that have a documented history of systematic racial discrimination at the polls. The latter -- nine states, and some counties and towns in other states -- are called "covered jurisdictions." Under § 5, a covered jurisdiction can't change anything about its election system -- not voter qualifications, not voting procedures, not legislative districts -- without "preclearance." Preclearance comes either from the U.S. Justice Department or from the District Court for the District of Columbia.
After the 2012 census, Texas redrew its districting map. It had to, under the Constitution: the new figures gave it four new seats in the U.S. House, and population shifts had made its state legislative districts unequal. The Texas Legislature is controlled by Republicans, and, not surprisingly, the legislative map they drew looks likely to produce increased Republican representation in both houses of the Legislature, and in the U.S. House. (Attention, prospective abusive commenters: back away from the mouse. I know Democrats do the same thing when they have control.) Texas then refused to seek Justice Department preclearance. It went into court instead and asked for an immediate ruling. DOJ opposed that motion. The Court refused to grant summary judgment for Texas, deciding that there were some § 2 issues that needed more examination.
Meanwhile, private plaintiffs in Texas sued in federal District Court there, alleging that the new map violates § 2 by, among other things, breaking up Latino population centers so that there might not be any new Latino-majority districts -- even though Latinos account for almost all the state's robust population growth. The Texas District judge is not allowed to decide those claims until the preclearance issue is settled in Washington. But a new map had to be drawn; and the VRA states clearly that in a covered jurisdiction, no new election procedure can take place "unless and until" it has been precleared.
So the District Court threw out the new map and drew its own, based on "neutral principles that advance the interest of the collective public good." It explicitly did not presume that the state's new map was a good starting place. That, it reasoned, would be giving effect to an election change that had not been precleared.
Wrong, said nine Justices Friday:
Section 5 prevents a state plan from being implemented if it has not been precleared. But that does not mean that the plan is of no account or that the policy judgments it reflects can be disregarded by a district court drawing an interim plan. On the contrary, the state plan serves as a starting point for the district court. It provides important guidance that helps ensure that the district court appropriately confines itself to drawing interim maps that comply with the Constitution and the Voting Rights Act, without displacing legitimate state policy judgments with the court's own preferences.
The court, in fact, should use the state's plan in any area where there has been no substantial § 2 challenge, the Court held. In essence, under this rule, challengers have to show something wrong with any feature of the state plan; if they can't, the court will use that feature.