New Georgia Voting Map Upheld by Supreme Court
By Joan Biskupic
A closely divided Supreme Court ruled yesterday that it is sufficient for Georgia to have just one majority-black voting district, rejecting the argument that more are needed to protect the political interests of African Americans.
The ruling reaffirmed the court's recent pattern of denouncing the use of race in the creation of congressional districts across the country. It is also part of a broader trend, driven by a narrow but potent five-justice majority, to challenge lawmakers who take race into account, even when their policies are designed to compensate for the nation's history of discrimination.
At issue are the districts that civil rights activists credit for doubling the number of black representatives in Congress over the past six years. Like other recent voting rights cases, the Georgia dispute can be traced to the 1990 census and to efforts to consolidate black voters into districts of their own, often ones that snake around the state picking up minorities from urban centers as well as rural enclaves.
Those efforts, driven by civil rights groups and the Justice Department, produced a record number of voting districts across the South that were either majority black or majority Hispanic. But they also prompted numerous challenges by white voters who claimed that these sometimes bizarre configurations were an unconstitutional attempt to classify people by the color of their skin and that they effectively discriminated against white voters.
Because many states already have resolved any challenges to their voting districts, yesterday's ruling will not force a rethinking of what has been done so far. Rather, it makes clear the principles the high court wants followed into the next millennium, when states armed with a new set of census data begin anew the process of drawing congressional maps.
In the Georgia case, the justices once again sided with a group of white voters, saying that states need not bow to pressure to maximize the number of minority-controlled districts in order to comply with the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It was the fifth time since 1993, when the court first allowed white voters to challenge such districts, that the justices ruled against black or Hispanic interests.
"The task of redistricting is best left to state legislatures, elected by the people and as capable as the courts, if not more so, in balancing the myriad factors and traditions in legitimate districting policies," Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the high court. He lashed out at the Justice Department for pressuring states to create districts designed chiefly to bolster the chances that minority candidates could win a seat in Congress. He was joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.
Dissenting justices, led by Stephen G. Breyer, said yesterday's decision would "unreasonably restrict" legislators' ability to draft race-based policies, even when their central aim is to fight discrimination against blacks. He was joined by Justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Some critics asserted yesterday that the court had turned the 14th Amendment's guarantee of equal protection, adopted to assure blacks civil rights, into a tool for whites trying to protect their own interests.
"The effectiveness of civil rights law is now being blunted," said Theodore M. Shaw, a counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. "The Supreme Court is taking a blindfolded approach to history."
That sentiment was echoed by the American Civil Liberties Union, which represented minority voters.
"A majority of the court seems determined to cripple the Voting Rights Act, which more than any other civil rights law has helped rid us of discrimination in voting," said ACLU lawyer Laughlin McDonald.
A. Lee Parks, who brought the case on behalf of white voters, countered yesterday that such responses amount to "sour grapes," and he insisted that voting districts were intended to represent "places . . . not specific groups of people."
The Georgia case had been to the high court before. It began after the census when the number of authorized congressional seats in Georgia rose from 10 to 11. State lawmakers submitted for Justice Department approval a plan that included two majority-black districts. The Justice Department said that wasn't enough, there ought to be three. About 28 percent of Georgia's population is black.
The state eventually complied, but white voters sued and the Supreme Court struck down the redrawn map, ruling that race cannot be a predominant factor in redistricting. That 1995 decision set new law and forced judges to begin strictly scrutinizing any redistricting plan in which the race of voters had been a predominant factor in drawing boundaries. The Georgia case then went back to the state legislature. But lawmakers deadlocked, and it was left to a district court to develop a new map.
That court settled on just one majority-black district, contending that any more would violate the traditional goals of creating voting areas that are geographically compact and contiguous.
The Justice Department and civil rights groups appealed to the Supreme Court. But in its opinion yesterday, the justices said the Georgia legislature was unfairly influenced by the Justice Department in drafting its original plans: "It is not Justice Department interference per se that is the concern," Kennedy wrote, "but rather the fact that Justice Department pressure led the state to act based on an overriding concern with race."
The challengers also contended that the new plan violated the Voting Rights Act, intended to compensate for racially polarized voting and to ensure that black votes are not diluted. They said blacks generally cannot elect candidates of their choice without majority-black districts.
But Kennedy said, in a portion of his opinion read from the bench yesterday, that whites have been willing to vote for blacks and that even when two black House incumbents, Cynthia McKinney (D) and Sanford Bishop (D), were stripped of their majority-black districts, they won reelection in 1996. Rep. John Lewis (D), a 10-year veteran, is Georgia's third black member of Congress.
Dissenting justices in the case, Abrams v. Johnson, emphasized that they believe the state legislature wanted two such districts and that it was natural for lawmakers to be influenced in part by the Justice Department. "How can a court say that a legislative act is legitimate . . . when those who reason or cajole (or threaten suit) are farmers, businessmen, or consumer groups, but that the same legislative act becomes illegitimate . . . simply because those who seek to persuade (or threaten suit) represent the Justice Department?" Breyer wrote.
In a blow to efforts to preserve majority-minority congressional districts, the Supreme Court upheld a redrawn Georgia district map that contains only one majority-black district, compared with three the state had previously.
Anthony M. Kennedy
Stephen G. Breyer
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company