An unpredictable Supreme Court term

The nation's minorities are expected to wield new political clout as a result of recent actions by the Supreme Court, the Congress, and the President.

''A new era of justice,'' is the way one key civil rights leader, Joseph Lowery, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, describes the possibilities opened by these federal initiatives.

He and others interviewed by the Monitor predict an increased number of blacks will be elected to office as a result of the extension of the Voting Rights Act, recently passed by Congress and signed by President Reagan, and a Supreme Court finding that election procedures in a Georgia county are discriminatory.

Both the voting rights extension and the Supreme Court decision will make it easier to prove in court that an election system discriminates against minorities, says Laughlin McDonald, an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) lawyer who has led efforts to challenge such systems.

For the past two years, the ACLU has not filed any challenges to at-large election systems - the kind the Supreme Court just ruled unconstitutional in the Georgia case - because a 1980 Supreme Court decision made proving such cases virtually impossible, according to various lawyers. That ruling required that discriminatory intent, not just results, had to be proved.

By contrast, the Voting Rights Act extension requires proof of discriminatory results, not intent, in election systems. This is an easier case to make, says the ACLU's Mr. McDonald.

The July 1 Supreme Court case involving Georgia's Burke County, a rural area near the South Carolina line, allowed a wide range of indirect evidence to show discriminatory intent, something not allowed by the 1980 decision. With these federal actions, the ACLU plans to resume filing challenges to at-large elections systems soon, Mr. McDonald says.

An at-large election in a county is countywide: All voters vote for all candidates. District elections divide up the county, which increases the chances that minority candidates may win because some districts will have black majorities.

Robert Cullen, a lawyer for the plaintiffs in the Georgia case, anticipates that legal challenges to the Voting Rights Act have been made ''practically hopeless'' by the Supreme Court's ruling. He hopes local governments with at-large voting systems will switch voluntarily in light of the decision.

Nationally blacks have made significant gains since the early 1960s, both in voter registration and election to office.

''Despite these strides, the sad truth is that racial discrimination in the electoral process still plagues blacks and language minorities in some parts of the country,'' Assistant US Attorney General William Bradford Reynolds told a congressional panel earlier this year.

Blacks today still hold only about 2 percent of the nation's elected public offices. And the rate of increase in their election has slowed over the past several years.

''Nobody has to be told in every county in Georgia there has been a history of discrimination,'' says E. Freeman Leverett, attorney for the county commissioners in the Georgia case. The plaintiffs probably made ''their strongest case'' showing evidence of this for Burke County, he said.

But he denied that the county discriminates against blacks by having countywide (at-large) elections, even though no black has ever been elected to the county commission. In a county with such a small population (about 18,000), it is better to have a countywide perspective, and not be elected from a district, he said in a Monitor interview.

District elections, which will probably ensure election of one or two blacks to the five-member commission, may ''polarize'' the community racially, he warned.

County officials have approved many programs aimed at serving blacks, he said. But Mr. Leverett, referring to one of the points the Supreme Court considered, said it is improper for the courts to judge whether they have or haven't.

Blacks are a slight majority of the population of Burke County but less than half of the voting age population and only about 39 percent of the registered voters.

One thing holding down black voter registration in many parts of the country, says the SCLC's Dr. Lowery, is hard economic times and a perception among many blacks that the black vote is not helping them improve their economic standing.

After the 1980 census, the number of legal suits and complaints regarding reapportionment and minority representation has increased sharply, according to Assistant Attorney General Reynolds.

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