Civil Rights, Term Limits Liven Supreme-Court Docket This Spring

Majority-black congressional districts raise gerrymandering issue

THE 1994-95 Supreme Court season, resuming today, will answer the big question for the United States Congress and many others: Is it constitutional for states to impose term limits on members of Congress? Most observers don't expect the court to uphold term limits, but either way, the ruling will determine future strategy on this politically charged issue.

Court-watchers see an eventful spring. For the civil-rights community, many key cases dot the agenda -- including several that question the boundaries of majority-black congressional districts. On Friday, the court agreed to hear a case from Georgia involving alleged racial gerrymandering, adding it to a similar Louisiana case.

''The term in September looked like it would be low-key, but now it looms as a potentially explosive year,'' says Steve Shapiro, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). ''The entire race docket is very important; all of [such cases] involve areas of the law where the law needs further clarification.''

Other civil rights cases before the court include:

*A Kansas City, Mo., school desegregation case that focuses on whether the state must continue to provide additional funding to the city's school system to bring its quality up to the level of majority-white schools in the state. The case, Missouri v. Jenkins, will be heard Jan. 11.

*An affirmative action case that questions the constitutionality of government aid to minority-owned businesses. Arguments in Adarand Constructors v. Pena will be heard Jan. 17.

Bruce Fein, a conservative legal scholar, says these cases ''generally raise the question of whether we have come to a point where we're getting beyond color consciousness and toward color blindness, or whether we're destined to be more color conscious.'' Continued color consciousness in the law is divisive and heightens racial frictions, Mr. Fein adds.

Many social programs of the 1960s are in fact under intense scrutiny in the conservatively tinged mid-1990s. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is no exception. Under the law and later judicial rulings, states are required to maximize the voting strength of minorities. That has been interpreted to include a mandate to draw black-majority congressional districts that make election of black candidates likely.

But a key question is, how far-flung and oddly shaped may these districts be drawn without creating a feeling of discrimination against white voters. In 1993, the Supreme Court threw the question wide open when it allowed white voters to challenge in federal court North Carolina's snake-like 12th District, drawn that way to heightened the possibility a black would be elected.

The federal judge, in fact, ruled that the North Carolina district was constitutional and complied with the Voting Rights Act. But federal courts in Louisiana, Texas, and Georgia have struck down such racially tailored districts as unacceptable gerrymandering. The Supreme Court's task is to clarify the status of these districts in time for the 1996 elections. The members of Congress who hold these challenged seats have been allowed to serve while the courts sort out their legality.

Penda Hair, staff attorney of the National Association for the Adavancement of Colored People's Legal Defense and Education Fund, says there are white districts that are just as oddly shaped for political reasons as are some of the black ''opportunity districts.''

Court-watchers see Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, the unofficial leader of the court's moderates, as the pivotal vote on these civil-liberty cases. This may not bode well for the African American members of Congress who represent the districts in question, because it was Mrs. O'Connor who wrote for the 5 to 4 majority in 1993 that questioned the validity of such districts.

In general, though, the court has taken on a less activist demeanor in recent years. ''The view is that this court is less of a threat to civil liberties than the court of several years back,'' says Mr. Shapiro of the ACLU. ''It is now dominated by moderates in philosophy and temperament.''

This does not bode well for supporters of the term-limits movement. For the court to allow state-imposed term limits would represent a major break with precedent and throw the federal legislative branch into turmoil.

More likely, say court observers, including conservatives, is that the Supreme Court will follow case law and uphold the Arkansas Supreme Court's ruling that struck down that state's term-limits initiative.

Paul Jacob, executive director of US Term Limits, a pro-limits group, says if limits lose he will redouble efforts to enact a constitutional amendment imposing term limits nationwide.

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