Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) and nine other members of Congress told the Supreme Court yesterday that the Reagan administration's position in a pending voting rights case blatantly misrepresents the purpose of a voting rights bill they wrote three years ago.
In a friend-of-the-court brief submitted in a North Carolina redistricting case, the law's chief authors -- five Republicans and five Democrats -- said the Justice Department's position in the case "was expressly rejected by Congress" when it amended the Voting Rights Act in 1982.
The Republican National Committee and Republican Gov. James G. Martin of North Carolina also opposed the administration's position in separate briefs yesterday.
A federal appeals court last year struck down North Carolina's system of electing several legislators from a single district, saying this diluted minority voting strength in some areas. The Justice Department contends that Congress never intended the law to apply to such cases, and that the appeals court is attempting to guarantee minorities a certain number of legislative seats based on their percentage of the population.
But Dole and his colleagues said that this case is clearly covered by the 1982 amendments and that their views were spelled out in a Senate report accompanying the compromise bill.
Calling the Justice Department's position "misguided," the lawmakers' brief said the high court "should not cut the 1982 amendments free from their legislative history and adopt an interpretation of that legislation inconsistent with the view of the congressional majority."
The three briefs released yesterday underscored the unusual split between the Reagan administration and much of the Republican Party over the politically sensitive issue. A brief submitted by members of Congress explaining their legislative action to the Supreme Court is extremely unusual.
The other senators who joined Dole are Republicans Charles Grassley (Iowa) and Charles McC. Mathias Jr. (Md.) and Democrats Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.), Howard M. Metzenbaum (Ohio) and Dennis DeConcini (Ariz.). The brief was also signed by two House Republicans, F. James Sensenbrenner (Wis.) and Hamilton Fish Jr. (N.Y.), and two House Democrats, Peter W. Rodino (N.J.) and Don Edwards (Calif.).
The case, Thornburg v. Gingles, is the first major Supreme Court test of the 1982 amendments, which said that local election laws could be found discriminatory if their result, and not simply their intent, was to penalize black voters. The law instructed judges to consider the "totality of circumstances" in each case.
"Anyone who followed the debates in 1982 knows the so-called compromise language was not a model of clarity and the issue would be litigated in court," Justice Department spokesman Terry H. Eastland said yesterday. "It's not surprising there would be people on the Hill who have a particular view of what the law meant. We'll see how the court interprets what the intent of Congress was."
The Reagan administration strongly resisted parts of the 1982 voting rights amendments but later embraced the final product.
Dole alluded to this mixed record at a news conference in Kansas yesterday.
"If the administration supported the bill that passed the Congress, then they probably shouldn't have intervened," he said.
Saying that the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which represents the black plaintiffs, encouraged him to enter the case, Dole said: "I think too often we Republicans are sort of on the periphery. We're never really in there when black Americans need our help."
Ralph G. Neas, director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, said the bipartisan brief highlighted the "extremism" of Attorney General Edwin Meese III and Assistant Attorney General William Bradford Reynolds.
"They are being isolated," Neas said. "Having failed legislatively, they are making an attempt in the Supreme Court to sabotage the Voting Rights Act."
The government's amicus brief -- filed last month by Reynolds and Acting Solicitor General Charles Fried -- said a three-judge appeals panel erred when it struck down North Carolina's multimember districts. It noted that several black candidates have won election in these districts in recent years.
The Justice Department said the appeals court ruling, if upheld, would mean that "wherever there has been discrimination in the past and some measure of racial polarization . . . district courts will be free to strike down virtually any scheme that does not -- or even those that do -- deliver electoral successes proportional to minority voting strength. That is not what Congress intended."
The brief continued: "Minority voters have no right to the creation of safe electoral districts merely because they could feasibly be drawn . . . . Nor can it be presumed . . . that 'safe' seats for minority officeholders would necessarily be in the interests of minority voters."
The department cited Senate opponents of the 1982 amendments and said the Senate report should not be given "undue emphasis" because it reflected the views of one faction.
But the 10 lawmakers countered that "at no point in the debates did any senator claim that the majority statement of the Senate report was inaccurate."
Their brief said the Justice Department's stance "could raise an artificial barrier to legitimate claims of denial of voting rights . . . . Congress did not intend that limited electoral success by a minority would foreclose" a voting rights lawsuit.
Martin's brief took a similar tack. "There can be little question that multimember districts in North Carolina dilute the effect of black voters," it said.
Republicans and blacks in North Carolina have found it historically difficult to win elections in multimember districts. Republicans much prefer the state's newly adopted single-member districts, which created not only majority black districts but also predominantly white suburban districts attractive to GOP candidates.