Court strikes down race-based challenge to districting

The decision may affect lawmakers trying to draw voting districts this year.

When state lawmakers across the country attempt to redraw voting districts this year, they will face a difficult question: To what extent may they take the race of prospective voters into consideration when drawing lines that could maintain, bolster, or dilute minority voting power?

Yesterday, the US Supreme Court offered some guidance when a majority of justices upheld the drawing of a North Carolina district that critics have long charged is the result of illegal racial gerrymandering.

Instead of agreeing with those critics, however, the justices ruled that North Carolina lawmakers had used a reasonable method when they redrew the boundaries and formed a congressional district that includes 47 percent of black voters in a district that will likely continue to elect an African-American to Congress.

In the 5-to-4 ruling, the US Supreme Court placed its seal of approval on the much litigated 12th Congressional District in North Carolina represented by Democrat Mel Watt.

At issue was whether racial considerations played a predominate role in drawing the district. The court has ruled earlier that such a predominant role would violate the equal protection clause of the US Constitution.

Prevailing view

"The evidence ... does not show that racial considerations predominated in the drawing of District 12's boundaries," writes Justice Stephen Breyer for the majority. "That is because race in this case closely correlates with political behavior." While racial gerrymandering is unconstitutional, political gerrymandering is legal.

Under litigation in federal court since 1993, the serpentine-shaped 12th District has become a test case for the proposition that voting districts could be redrawn by using race as a consideration, though not the primary consideration, of drafters.

The key issue is how to balance the requirements of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which says race must be taken into consideration to ensure equal access, and US Supreme Court precedent that says race must not become the predominant factor in redrawing voting districts.

A panel of federal judges in North Carolina found that race was a predominant factor. Yesterday the nation's highest court said their findings were "clearly erroneous."

"The basic question is whether the legislature drew District 12's boundaries because of race rather than because of political behavior," Justice Breyer writes. He referred to research in North Carolina used by the redrafters that shows that African-Americans in North Carolina are more reliable Democratic voters than many white voters in that state who register as Democrats but sometimes vote for Republicans.

Critics of the district cited an e-mail sent by one of the drafters as direct evidence of an impermissible racial motive. The e-mail says in part: "I have moved Greensboro Black community into the 12th, and now need to take ... 60,000 out of the 12th."

Justice Clarence Thomas in a dissent says the e-mail and other indirect evidence was ample enough to uphold the lower-court decision. "The court tries to belittle the import of this evidence by noting that the email does not discuss why blacks were being targeted," he writes. "However, the District Court was assigned the task of determining whether, not why, race predominated."

The decision upholding the district was made possible by the swing vote of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who has sided with the conservative wing of the court in earlier redistricting cases. Also joining Breyer were Justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Guidance for state lawmakers

The ruling is important because it offers critical guidance to lawmakers who are preparing to redraw districts following the 2000 census. "To have affirmed the district court would have made redistricting even harder," says Laughlin McDonald, of the American Civil Liberties Union in Atlanta.

The redistricting process can be manipulated by whichever party controls the statehouse to bolster that party's prospects in future elections. It can also be manipulated to either enhance or erode the prospects of minority candidates.

Differentiating between the two is difficult and contentious. For example, following the 1990 census, more than 130 lawsuits were filed challenging newly drawn districts in 40 states.

A similar explosion of litigation is expected during the coming redistricting.

Staff writer Dante Chinni contributed to this report.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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