Where to draw the line on minority voting

High court today debates legality of Louisiana school redistricting

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Bossier Parish in northwestern Louisiana has a long history of racial discrimination and segregation. So in the early 1990s when the school board began debating a plan to form new districts to elect school board members, the US Justice Department took a close look.

The department took issue with the fact that even though African-Americans make up more than 20 percent of the parish population, none of the proposed 12 election districts included a district with a majority of black voters.

Justice Department lawyers tried to block implementation of the redistricting plan, but were overruled by a three-judge panel.

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The judges ruled that since the new plan did not further dilute the voting strength of African-Americans in Bossier Parish, it could not be blocked under the Voting Rights Act.

Government lawyers in the case say the judges took too narrow a view of the law, and that any discriminatory redistricting plan - including one that maintains discrimination at a constant level - must be invalidated.

Today the US Supreme Court will consider whether Bossier Parish's voting districts must be upheld or redrawn.

The case involves a technical interpretation of a fine point in the voting rights law. But on a broader level the case is significant because the court's decision will likely offer guidance to scores of other jurisdictions across the country when they attempt to draw their own voting districts following the 2000 census.

The case points up the legal difficulty in drawing voting districts that neither empower nor disenfranchise particular groups of voters.

In places where there is a history of past racial discrimination, the Justice Department has used the Voting Rights Act to detect and prevent illegal efforts by the white majority to prevent black voters from exerting political clout at the polls.

On the other side, some communities feel the Justice Department and civil rights groups are prone to go too far in insisting on the creation of districts with a majority of black voters. They argue that the use of racial criteria to increase the possibility of the election of black candidates is illegal gerrymandering and a violation of the equal protection clause of the Constitution.

At issue in the Bossier Parish case is how much discrimination is necessary to justify blocking a redistricting plan. Lawyers for the school board argue that the Voting Rights Act only bars redistricting plans with a "retrogressive purpose." That means the new districts are intended to dilute the political power of blacks below existing levels.

Bossier Parish says there was no evidence that the new districts would reduce black political clout from existing levels and, thus, the new districts must be permitted.

Justice Department lawyers counter that the Voting Rights Act is broad enough to bar any ongoing discrimination in drawing new voting districts - regardless of whether the new districts further dilute black voting strength or maintain discrimination at a constant level.

The act requires the courts to decide whether a redistricting plan has a discriminatory purpose, not merely whether it has a retrogressive purpose, the government says.

THE school board says it adopted an identical voting district plan as the county government, in part because that plan had already been pre-approved as nondiscriminatory by the Justice Department.

In addition, in the eight years since the litigation began, three African-Americans were elected to the 12-member school board under the allegedly discriminatory redistricting plan. District officials point to this as proof that the plan was not discriminatory.

But government lawyers and civil rights activists say the issue is the intent of the school board at the time the plan was enacted, not what has happened since the board's decision.

Government lawyers say that the school board ignored a viable proposal that two districts could be drawn in a compact manner that would have included a majority of black voters. They say the school board's decision not to adopt the proposal for majority black districts is evidence of an intent to discriminate.

"Our contention in this case is that they already had zero districts with a black majority of voters, you can't get any worse than that," says Edward Still of The Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. "We have a case involving the intention of maintaining the discriminatory status quo. The question is whether that is enough [to block the redistricting plan]."

Lawyers for the school board say Bossier Parish and other similar jurisdictions, are facing a no-win situation.

"If you don't maximize the majority-minority districts in your redistricting plan, the Department of Justice comes down on you and says you are racists," says Michael Rosman of the Center for Individual Rights, which is helping represent Bossier Parish in the case. "And if you do, you get sued [by white voters] under the equal protection clause of the Constitution."

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