The Supreme Court yesterday let stand a ruling that Norfolk's at-large city council election system violates the rights of black voters.
Norfolk's seven-member city council was all-white from 1912, when the at-large system was adopted, until 1968. There was one black member from 1968 to 1984, and a second black member was elected in 1984, after a lawsuit challenging the at-large system was filed. The city now is 35 percent black.
A federal appeals court in Richmond ordered the city to adopt a single-district system to "remedy the vote dilution" resulting from the at-large elections.
Norfolk urged the justices to review the ruling, arguing that it imposed a requirement that blacks be represented on the council in proportion to their presence in the population, in violation of Congress's intent in passing the Voting Rights Act.
The city said the court's approach would make it "virtually impossible for any jurisdiction to maintain an at-large voting system, thus invalidating by far the most common system used in municipalities throughout the United States."
But lawyers for a group of black voters and the local NAACP said the appeals court was not requiring proportional representation and said "undisputed voting statistics clearly demonstrate that at-large city council elections deny black voters an equal opportunity to elect candidates of their choice."
The Bush administration also recomended that the court not hear the case, Norfolk v. Collins. A separate case, in which another federal appeals court said the at-large system used in Saguache County, Colo., did not violate the rights of Hispanic voters, was also rejected by the court.
Although local boards and councils in Arlington County and Alexandria are chosen in at-large elections, black leaders there said yesterday they doubted the Norfolk case will have much impact in their jurisdictions, where the black populations are smaller and more scattered than in Norfolk.
In other action, the court yesterday declined to review the conviction of a Montgomery County businessman who chopped down 126 trees on national park land near his house to improve his view of the Potomac River.
The businessman, Isaac Fogel, was convicted last year of cutting timber on public land, a misdemeanor, and converting government property consisting of the trees, a felony. He was sentenced to 15 days in prison and fined $20,000.
Fogel, who blamed professional treecutters for ignoring his instructions in cutting the trees near the C&O Canal, challenged the felony conviction on the grounds that he did not "convert" the trees to his own use but merely left them on park service land.
The federal appeals court in Richmond found that the tree cutting "substantially and criminally interfered" with the government's use of its property.
In other cases, the court:
Agreed to hear a dispute over standards for awarding black lung benefits that may affect as much as $650 million in claims by coal miners and their families.
Refused to consider reinstating a $20 million damage award for birth defects allegedly caused by a woman's use of Bendectin during her pregnancy. The federal appeals court here had overturned the verdict in Ealy v. Richardson-Merrell, finding that expert testimony that the anti-nausea drug causes birth defects "is without scientific foundation" and therefore should not have been admitted during the trial.
Declined to review a ruling by New York's highest court that allowing publicly regulated utilities to include charitable donations in cal- culating their rates violates the free-speech rights of their customers.
Yesterday's oral argument also elicited the first comments from the bench from the newest justice, David H. Souter. Souter, who had been silent through eight hours of oral argument earlier this month, asked questions in a case involving federal courts' authority to review immigration claims.
Staff writer Stephanie Griffiths contributed to this report.