Rules still fuzzy on redistricting

The US Supreme Court has made it slightly more difficult to challenge newly drawn election districts that are allegedly the result of illegal racial gerrymandering.

But in their unanimous decision on Monday in a North Carolina redistricting case, the justices dodged the central issue: To what extent may race be used to draw election districts?

The case involves a challenge by white voters to the drawing of a district that is designed to help African-Americans elect candidates of their choice. The district is 47 percent black. The district itself is long and narrow, extending 71 miles across the state.

Conservatives on the high court have long expressed reservations about the use of racial criteria to draw district lines, while the more moderate and liberal justices have felt that sometimes race must be taken into account to compensate for past discrimination.

Legal analysts on both sides of the contentious issue had been closely following the case for clues to how the court would settle the issue of race-based redistricting plans. Such guidance is important for state legislators who face widespread redistricting following the 2000 census.

This decision does not provide much guidance. Instead, the court ruled that a panel of lower court judges erred when they struck down the new district on a summary judgment motion, prior to holding a full trial.

The case now returns to the federal court in North Carolina, where a trial must be held to determine whether state legislators used race as a "predominant factor" when drawing the election district.

If the court finds that they did, the district must be struck down in accord with prior Supreme Court rulings. If the court finds that race was a factor, but not a major factor, then the judges may uphold the district lines.

At that point, whatever the outcome, the case will likely return to the Supreme Court.

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