U.S. Solicitor General Charles Fried, arguing in an important voting-rights case, told the Supreme Court yesterday that black politicians should get elected "in the old fashioned way -- through politics" and should not be guaranteed safe seats based on their percentage of the population.
Fried was contesting a lower court ruling that held North Carolina's redistricting plan illegal under 1982 amendments to the federal Voting Rights Act because it diluted minority voting power. The government contends that the ruling's effect was to require election of a certain number of blacks.
Fried said under the 1982 amendments it was sufficient to show that a redistricting plan did not impede the rights of black voters to participate in the political process. He argued that blacks had been elected in significant numbers.
The case, Thornburg v. Gingles, is the first major test of the 1982 amendments, which said local election laws could be overturned if their result -- not simply their intent -- was to penalize blacks. Civil rights groups say the court's decision in this case could signal lower court judges on how to handle voting-rights cases.
A lawyer for black plaintiffs in the case disputed Fried's characterization of the lower court holding, saying that the lower court specifically rejected a goal of racially proportional representation.
Julius Chambers, an attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund said North Carolina "submerged blacks" in predominantly white voting areas, illegally diluting black voting strength. Chambers said the lower court correctly struck down attempts to have several legislators elected from one large district rather than from individual, smaller districts.
But North Carolina Attorney General Lacy H. Thornburg, defending the plan, said the lower court "simply ignored the facts of the case by ignoring" the full access black voters and candidates have to the electoral process. "They just don't have the facts to support their position," Thornburg said.
Chambers argued that the three lower court judges found substantial racial bloc voting, where large numbers of whites would never vote for blacks. The judges, "three native North Carolinians, . . . know the political process in North Carolina," Chambers said, adding that they properly analyzed the voting plan in light of the 1982 law.
While whites can vote for a full slate of candidates in a multi-member district, blacks often must "single-shot" their votes, Chambers argued, voting only for one black to make sure that candidate wins. Even then, blacks who win often must do so by appealing to white voters, Chambers said, but whites win with or without black support.
Blacks often have "less access to their black representatives because they live outside the district" where most blacks live and "are not accountable to the black community," he said.
Chambers agreed with Justice John Paul Stevens that carving up multi-member districts into single-member district would not necessarily ensure that more blacks would be elected. It could mean, Stevens said, the same number of blacks would be elected but that they would be "different ones."
Chambers said the single-member plan would ensure that those blacks elected would be more responsive to black constituents.
A decision in the case is expected by July.
In other action yesterday, the court:
*Said in U.S. v. Riverside Bayview Homes that, under the Clean Water Act, the Army Corps of Engineers can require permits before developers dredge and fill wetlands near navigable waters.
An appeals court, siding with a developer, said federal law does not require a permit for developing land near the shores of Lake St. Clair, Mich. The high court overturned that ruling in a unanimous opinion by Justice Byron R. White.
*Ruled in a case involving the Federal Magistrates Act that an Ohio woman convicted of murdering her husband waived her right to appeal a magistrate's opinion when she failed to file timely objections.
Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote that the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals properly turned down the woman's request that she be allowed to present evidence concerning "battered wives syndrome" as part of her defense. Justices William J. Brennan Jr., Harry A. Blackmun and Stevens dissented.