Georgia Judges Overrule Black District

Decision could reshape state politics and may provide blueprint for other states

THREE federal judges in Georgia this week released a plan that reduces support for majority-black congressional districts even further than this year's watershed Supreme Court decision.

In this first judicial interpretation of the limits set by the high court - which ruled districts cannot be drawn by race - the three-judge panel discarded two of Georgia's three predominantly black districts.

If upheld, the ruling has the potential to reshape Georgia politics, aid Democrats in recapturing several Republican congressional seats, and provide a blueprint for states also considering a shift away from mostly black districts.

The judges' decision to throw out the two black districts ''suggests a level of hostility in the lower federal courts to the Voting Rights Act ... that goes far beyond what the Supreme Court, I think, thought was going to happen,'' says Pamela Sue Karlan, a professor of law at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

In its June decision, Miller v. Johnson, the court seemed to indicate that having two majority-black districts would not violate the Constitution, Ms. Karlan says. ''What this [judge's panel] has done is go further back than even the state of Georgia wanted to go.''

The new map, released Wednesday, throws out Rep. Cynthia McKinney's 11th District and Rep. Sanford Bishop Jr.'s Second District, placing them both in newly drawn districts held by white Republicans. Ms. McKinney and Mr. Bishop are two of three black Democrats from Georgia serving in the US House. Georgia's eight other representatives are Republican.

The judges drew the map after members of the state legislature failed to do so during a special session in August. The legislature took up the task after the Supreme Court ruled in June that Ms. McKinney's district was unconstitutional because it was drawn using race as its predominant guideline. The elongated district has little geographic cohesion, meandering more than 200 miles from Atlanta to Savannah.

The high court's decision provided little guidance to states in how to redraw voting boundaries. It has also not had its final say on the subject of race and political districts. This fall, the court agreed to hear two other cases that challenge largely minority districts - in Texas and North Carolina.

If the Supreme Court throws out the maps in those states, their trial courts are apt to refer to Georgia's map in reshaping its political districts, says Charles Bullock, a professor of political science at the University of Georgia in Athens.

''If a federal court is saying Georgia should only have one district, then I would expect other federal courts will come out with similar rulings,'' concurs Ms. Karlan.

IN Georgia, Mr. Bullock believes the new map doesn't necessarily spell defeat for McKinney and Bishop if they run again in their new districts. ''It may mean a lot of candidates are going to have to work much harder in '96 than they would have otherwise,'' he says. ''Black Democrats are going to have to make sure they get a good black turnout as well as reaching across racial lines and getting some white voters.''

Attorneys for black voters are appealing the decision to the Supreme Court on grounds that it exceeds the federal court's powers.

Meanwhile, lawsuits challenging black-majority districts have been filed in New York, Illinois, and Florida. Ohio has taken its suit to the Supreme Court; last week a lawsuit was filed against Virginia's only black district.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.