WASHINGTON — In two sharply divided votes yesterday, the US Supreme Court continued a three-year trend in reducing race as a factor in creating voting districts - much-anticipated decisions that could alter federal, state, and local elections across the country.
In a Texas case involving black and Hispanic districts and a North Carolina case covering a black-majority district, the high court weakened further the clout of the 1965 Voting Rights Act - long used to compensate for prior discrimination by creating voting districts with a majority of minority voters. Both votes were 5 to 4.
In the Texas case, a District Court had ruled in 1994 that several minority districts created under the Voting Rights Act were unconstitutional. Rather than using race as just one of many factors in creating the districts, which is constitutional, the lower court said Texas lawmakers used race as a "predominant factor."
Last year, the Supreme Court ruled out race as a "predominant factor" in so-called gerrymandered districts.
What the high court was to decide in yesterday's case was: What does "predominant" mean? Yet rather than define the term, the court threw the job of definition back to the local courts - essentially saying that predominant means whatever a lower court says it means.
Writing for the majority, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor stated that "...the District Court's determination that race was the predominant factor in the drawing of each of the districts must be sustained."
Justice O'Connor also cast the decision in a racially affirmative light. The high court is committed to eliminating "unnecessary and excessive government use and enforcement of racial stereotypes," she wrote.
Dissenting, Justice John Paul Stevens argued that the court majority was "seriously misguided." The ruling was not an affirmative but a hostile ruling, he wrote, with respect to minority concerns:
"A majority's attempt to enable the minority to participate more effectively in the process of democratic government should not be viewed with the same hostility that is appropriate for oppressive and exclusionary abuses of political power," Justice Stevens wrote.
Roots of the dispute
In the North Carolina case, the court further affirmed that a US Justice Department statute, based on the Voting Rights Act, was not binding on states. In 1990, the Justice Department pressured the North Carolina legislature to create two new districts, sending the state's first blacks to Congress since 1901.
Delivering the majority opinion, Chief Justice William Rehnquist argued the Voting Rights Act did not bear the burden of a "compelling state interest."
"Both decisions demonstrate the court's continuing skepticism of race-based districting, if not hostility, toward it," says Mark Tushnet, dean of the Georgetown University Law School.
A pattern of controversial rulings dates back to a 1992 case, Shaw v. Reno, in which the high court examined a number of spidery and bizarrely shaped districts, mainly in the South.
Arguing those districts did not adequately protect their minority whites under the 14th Amendment's equal-protection clause, the court rejected the rationale on which they were created - calling them a form of "political apartheid."
Last year in a Georgia case, the court ruled that racial criteria for gerrymandered districts must fall under a guideline called "strict scrutiny" - the toughest legal standard for states to meet.
That ruling further removed the possibility of creating new districts, or, as yesterday's ruling indicates, sustaining race as a principal means of electoral redress for past discrimination.
The vote in the two cases fell along the sharp divide the court has experienced for several years. Siding with the majority were Rehnquist, O'Connor, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Anthony Kennedy. Dissenters included Stevens, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Stephen Breyer.
Rodney King case
Another key decision issued yesterday could have important implications for federal court sentencing guidelines, which are aimed at yielding greater consistency in prison sentences nationwide.
The case at issue revolved around Stacey Koon and Laurence Powell, two ex-Los Angeles policemen convicted of the infamous 1991 videotaped beating of Rodney King.
Messrs. Powell and Koon's original jail sentences were relatively light, at 30 months each. The federal judge who issued the sentences said that mitigating factors, such as the fact that the pair had lost their jobs, caused him to ignore federal sentencing guidelines that could have sent the men to prison for between 70 and 87 months for violating King's civil rights.
An appeals court had ruled that the trial judge was wrong, and the pair should receive stiffer sentences. Supreme Court justices ruled unanimously that the whole thing should be sent back to the trial judge for reconsideration.
Some of the mitigating factors cited by the trial judge can indeed be taken into account in the resentencing, ruled the high court.
The likelihood that the pair would be susceptible to an unusual degree of abuse in prison, and the fact they had been subjected to successive federal and state prosecutions, were valid considerations, according to yesterday's ruling.
But some of the factors, such as job loss and the low risk that Koon and Powell would commit additional crimes, shouldn't have weighed in the sentencing decision, said the Supreme Court in its ruling.
* Staff writer Peter Grier contributed to this report.