The Supreme Court yesterday upheld a controversial section of the 1982 Voting Rights Act that outlaws redistricting plans and election laws if they produce discriminatory results, regardless of whether they were discriminatory in intent.
The ruling came in challenges to a Mississippi redistricting plan, drawn up earlier this year by a federal court, that gave black voters in the 2nd Congressional District a majority.
State officials and the Mississippi Republican Party argued that the plan went too far, while a group of black voters said the plan, which created a 53 percent black majority in the district, did not go far enough.
Despite the redistricting plan, incumbent Rep. Webb Franklin, a white Republican, defeated black Democratic challenger Robert Clark by 4,300 votes in last Tuesday's election.
Justice William H. Rehnquist, joined by Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, dissented from the court's decision, which approved the plan and upheld the constitutionality of the 1982 law without full arguments or opinions.
The law resulted, in part, from an attempt by Congress to overturn a 1980 Supreme Court decision, City of Mobile v. Bolden, which said that those who challenged districting plans had to show intentional discrimination by state officials.
The dissenters said that when the lower federal court prepared its plan, it essentially had interpreted the 1982 law to mean that minority voters are entitled to have a majority in at least one district in states that had discriminated in the past.
The dissent drew a brief rejoinder from Justice John Paul Stevens, who said the lower court's conclusion was "quite the contrary" and was based on the specific case in Mississippi.
The Supreme Court's action yesterday was a partial win for both sides, according to Kathleen McGuan, an attorney for the state officials, and Frank Parker, an attorney for the black voters.
"It's a win in that the high court sustained a 'results test' " for voting discrimination cases, Parker said. That should make it easier for minority group voters across the nation to prove discrimination.
But black voters had also contended that their 53 percent voting majority was inadequate, McGuan said, and the high court did not grant their appeal. The cases are Mississippi Republican Executive Committee v. Owen H. Brooks; Brooks v. William A. Allain, Governor of Mississippi, and Allain v. Brooks.
In other action yesterday, the justices agreed to decide for the first time what standards judges should use to review the constitutionality of laws that discriminate against mentally retarded people.
The case involves a zoning dispute in Cleburne, Tex., where the city required group homes for the mentally retarded to obtain special permits.
An organization seeking to set up such a home was denied a permit after local residents protested. The group sued the city, saying the permit requirement violated the rights of mentally retarded people to equal treatment under the law.
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the zoning law as discriminatory.
The court said that laws that discriminate against the mentally retarded should be viewed much like those that involve sex discrimination, where the government is required to prove not only that the law is rational but that there is a "substantial" or "compelling" reason to justify the disparate treatment.
The appeals court said laws involving the mentally retarded did not have to pass a standard of "strict scrutiny." That standard is reserved for laws involving discrimination on the basis of race or national origin, and such laws are rarely upheld.
The case is City of Cleburne, Tex., v. Cleburne Living Center.
The high court also:
* Declined to overturn a federal judge's order requiring the National Rifle Association to turn over a list of its contributors to a Minnesota state ethics agency. The case is National Rifle Association of America v. Minnesota Ethical Practice Board.
* Said it would decide whether prison inmates have a constitutional right to judicial review of rulings by prison disciplinary boards. The case is Superintendent, Massachusetts Correctional Institution v. Hill.
* Declined to review a lower-court ruling that blocked the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management from spraying weed killers in forests in Oregon. An appeals court had ruled that the BLM did not go far enough in reviewing the possible "worst case" effects that herbicides could have on people.
Government attorneys had argued that the review would take five years and cost millions of dollars. The case is Clark v. Southern Oregon Citizens Against Toxic Sprays.