Court Sends Mixed Signals in Landmark Rulings

It Limits Use of Race in Drawing Election Lines

IF nothing else, the Supreme Court term of 1994-1995 will be remembered for historic decisions that limit the government's ability to take active steps intended to redress past racial discrimination.

Federal affirmative-action programs, school desegregation efforts, and now congressional districts shaped for the benefit of minority candidates - all have been curtailed or called into question by recent Supreme Court rulings.

To some observers, the decisions represent progress toward a truly color-blind US society. To others, they represent a step backward in the march toward equality.

In recent rulings, the court has "essentially said that neither the courts nor Congress can do much to respond to continuing racial inequality in our society," says David Cole, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center.

In its latest ruling on race, the court yesterday struck down a Georgia redistricting plan that had enabled three black Democrats to win congressional seats.

Though the 5-to-4 vote indicated a deep split among justices on the issue, the implications of the case are enormous: The shape of congressional districts all across America may now be called into question. Many of the current 39 black members of the House of Representatives could find their continued presence in office threatened.

Ironically, according to some analysts, the ruling could in fact bolster the position of the Democratic Party. Instead of crowding minority voters, who tend to vote Democratic, into the same district they might now be spread among many districts, threatening Republican incumbents.

Currently, "there are 13 Republicans in the House that might not have been elected if minorities had not been packed quite so tightly into these seats," claims Daniel Polsby, a professor at Northwestern University Law School.

Writing for the court, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said that the Georgia redistricting plan in question violated some voters' equal-protection rights. When legislators draw up new election districts, race cannot be the predominant factor guiding their efforts, Mr. Kennedy said.

Legal attacks on these districts will succeed when plaintiffs can show that legislatures "subordinated traditional race-neutral districting principles ... to racial considerations," Kennedy wrote.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, writing in dissent, claimed in response that in fact "statutory mandates and political realities may require states to consider race when drawing district lines."

The ruling fits in with a general trend in which the court has begun to view many types of affirmative-action programs as infringements on the rights of citizens who do not benefit from them, according to some analysts.

"This ruling is consistent with the belief that all racial classifications are suspect, regardless of whether they are purported to benefit whites or minorities," says Mark Packman, an attorney for Dickstein, Shapiro, and Morin in Washington who has represented local governments in redistricting cases.

Others pointed out that the decision also raises the profile of racial political issues at a time when the Clinton administration can perhaps least afford it. With a presidential election year looming, "it puts the politics of racial constituencies on the front burner of state politics again," says Merle Black, an expert in southern politics at Emory University in Atlanta.

In another case, the Supreme Court ruled 9-to-0 that four residents who sued Louisiana's congressional redistricting plan lacked the legal standing to sue.

The residents in question did not in fact live in districts they were challenging, the court pointed out. "Louisiana is now one big merry-go-round. We start all over again," says Paul Baier, a law professor at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge and special counsel to the state attorney general.

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