The firsts case testing the 1982 amendments to the Voting Rights Act has reached the Supreme Court and has been decided in four words: "The judgment is affirmed." Seven justices agreed to let stand a decision by a U.S. District Court in Mississippi approving a congressional redistricting plan. That plan created a district in which 53 percent of the voting-age population is black. But because two justices filed a dissenting opinion and one of the majority filed a concurring opinion specifically to counter the dissenters, the value of the court's action as a precedent is uncertain.
It's now clear that the courts can devise a remedy for voter discrimination that produces a district not only with a majority black population, but with a majority black voting-age population. But some doubt for the future lingers. Justice Rehnquist, writing in dissent for himself and the chief justice, said this is tantamount to giving each minority group a right to proportional representation, a result specifically rejected in the 1982 statute. Justice Stevens countered that this misinterprets the lower court's intention, which was simply to remedy a specific situation in Mississippi. Future cases -- some are on the court's docket this year -- will tell which view of this critically important issue is supported by a majority.
The proposition that minorities are entitled to districts where they have an overwhelming majority was rejected. Black plaintiffs had objected to the lower court's plan because they wanted a district that was 65 percent minority in order to make the election of blacks a certainty. There was no support on the high court for this position.
It is instructive to remember another fact: in the Mississippi district that was specifically created with a 53 percent voting-age black majority, voters returned a white Republican to office this month. The Voting Rights Act is intended to guarantee minorities an equal opportunity to participate in the voting process, not to guarantee an outcome. Citizens do not always vote along color lines, and a racial majority may very well choose to elect someone from the minority. The victories of mayors Tom Bradley, Wilson Goode and Harold Washington prove this point. So do the elections of Reps. Peter Rodino, Wyche Fowler, Webb Franklin and Lindy Boggs. American laws are designed to make these kinds of colorblind elections the norm.