N.C. Redistricting Gets Another Chance
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 18, 1999; Page A8
The Supreme Court ruled unanimously yesterday that judges must look deeply into the evidence before deciding that state lawmakers have unconstitutionally used race as a major factor in drawing districts.
On the eve of another round of political redistricting which will follow the 2000 census, the justices made it harder for lower courts to summarily strike down election districts that concentrate African American and other minority voters.
The justices reversed a decision by a three-judge lower court invalidating a North Carolina district. They said that because the panel had not held a hearing on the evidence, it had not adequately determined the motive of state lawmakers, who contended that the borders of the state's 12th Congressional District were drawn primarily for political reasons.
In this closely watched voting rights case, the state had argued that it 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 carved out a heavily black district. (The district's boundaries have been repeatedly challenged as racial gerrymanders, and yesterday's case marked its third time at the high court.)
Since 1990 state legislatures, under pressure from the Justice Department to compensate for past discrimination against racial minorities at the polls, have been drawing voting districts in ways that boost the chances for African Americans and Hispanics to elect their candidates of choice. But in a series of rulings since 1993 the high court has closely scrutinized these irregularly shaped districts. The justices have ruled that race may not be a predominant factor when new districts are drawn because it relies on racial stereotypes and violates the constitutional guarantee of equal protection.
In yesterday's ruling in Hunt v. Cromartie, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that evidence from white voters who challenged the 12th District "tends to support an inference that the state drew its district lines with an impermissible racial motive -- even though they presented no direct evidence of intent. Summary judgment, however, is appropriate only where there is no genuine issue of material fact."
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