High Court Weighs Race-Based Districts
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 21, 1999; Page A4
On the eve of a new census and another round of political redistricting, the Supreme Court yesterday confronted recurring questions of how far states can go to give African Americans an equal chance in electing their preferred candidates to political office.
Since 1993, the justices have closely examined irregularly shaped voting districts drawn by legislatures to concentrate minority voters and to boost their political clout. The court has said race may not be a "predominant" factor when new legislative districts are drawn because it relies on racial stereotypes, polarizes voters, and ultimately violates the constitutional guarantee of equal protection.
But yesterday during a heated hour of oral arguments, the justices struggled with what exactly "predominant" means and how much old-fashioned party politics -- including the protection of incumbents -- can enter the mix. The court's answer will affect congressional districts after the 2000 census and reapportionment and influence black and Hispanic political strength across the country.
In a series of narrowly decided cases over the past five years, the Rehnquist court has made it easier for whites to challenge the race-based redistricting that proliferated after the 1990 census. The rulings have been praised by groups that believe the process should be colorblind and unaffected by past bias but have been sharply criticized by civil rights activists who believe the decisions will erode the recent gains of minorities in Congress and the statehouses.
The case before the court yesterday involved a North Carolina congressional district that was challenged as racially gerrymandered. State officials insist that however much it appears to be carved along racial lines, it was drawn to create a Democratic stronghold.
"Partisan voting patterns, not race, were the predominant basis" for the district, Walter E. Dellinger, representing North Carolina officials, told the court. He said the legislature wanted to keep the 12th District Democratic and to help guarantee the reelection of Rep. Melvin Watt, a Democrat who is black and who was first elected to the House in 1992 after the state first carved out a majority bloc of black voters.
The group of white voters challenging the revised 12th District says it is an attempt "to perpetuate racial gerrymanders in North Carolina" and that the court need only look at the district's twists and turns through various urban areas and its racial demographics to realize that the predominant motive of the district was race.
But Dellinger told the court that a politically gerrymandered district cannot be ruled unconstitutional because "it happens to correlate with race."
Justice Department lawyer James Feldman, siding with North Carolina, acknowledged yesterday that "racial fairness" played a part in the legislature's new voting map but said partisan politics was overriding.
Under sharp questioning from Justices Anthony M. Kennedy and Antonin Scalia about whether race can ever be used in drawing districts, Feldman said lawmakers can employ racial characteristics in small ways, in some neighborhoods, and also to fulfill the goals of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, intended to eliminate the lingering effects of discrimination.
Robinson Everett, representing the voters who successfully challenged the 12th District in a lower court, told the justices the district -- a roughly even mix of blacks and whites -- is "tainted" by its history and asserted that while the state says it wanted to consolidate Democrats, it really means "Democrats who are African Americans."
In 1993, the snakelike district was at issue when the Supreme Court for the first time allowed white voters to contest majority-black districts as a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment's guarantee of equal protection of the laws. Then in 1996, after a lower court had actually heard the whites' challenge, the Supreme Court struck down the 12th District as unconstitutional, finding that race was the predominant factor in drawing the lines and the state lacked a compelling reason for the action.
State lawmakers redrew the district in 1997, consolidating blocks and neighborhoods that had been split under the old plan, shortening the elongated shape and reducing the number of blacks it covered (to about 46 percent). But the district still swept in big concentrations of blacks, and a special three-judge panel summarily ruled last year, without a full evidentiary hearing, that the legislature had "utilized race as the predominant factor in drawing the district."
North Carolina officials maintain they should have been allowed a full hearing to show they were focused on partisan election results, not race.
Yesterday, it appeared that a majority of the justices might agree that the state should at least get a full hearing. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who has been the linchpin in the court's new rules, said the state may have had "sufficient evidence to avoid summary judgment" against it. She also observed that the legislature that devised the earlier plan that was ruled unconstitutional was not the group that revised it in 1997. A ruling in the case of Hunt v. Cromartie is expected by summer.
Separately yesterday, the justices by 6 to 3 broadly interpreted a portion of federal law that requires certain states and localities to obtain Justice Department approval before changing election systems. The law is intended to ensure that the rights of minority voters are not harmed in areas of the country that previously engaged in literacy tests or other discriminatory practices. The justices said in Lopez v. Monterey County that affected local governments must obtain the requisite federal approval even when the election changes are required by state law.
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