The Supreme Court heard two cases yesterday that involve narrow disputes but offer the potential for broad rulings on racial discrimination and voting rights.
One case concerns a Hawaiian law that allows only persons of Native Hawaiian ancestry to vote for the trustees of an agency that provides benefits to descendants of the original islanders. Harold F. Rice, who was born in Hawaii but who is white, challenged the voting requirement as unconstitutionally based on race.
The other dispute comes from Bossier Parish in Louisiana, where the Justice Department has taken exception to the school board's proposed redistricting plan, because all 12 voting districts would have white majorities, even though about 20 percent of the population is black.
Elevating these otherwise obscure cases to national prominence is the Supreme Court's recent record on racial issues. Over the past decade, the Rehnquist Court has repeatedly rejected government policies designed to increase opportunities for minorities and to compensate for the nation's history of discrimination. By narrow majorities, the court has struck down voting districts that were drawn to concentrate black and Hispanic voters and, separately, rejected programs that give minorities a boost in public contracting.
Because of this history, yesterday's cases have drawn the interest of groups on both sides of the debate over government remedies for past discrimination. The Hawaiian case, in particular, has elicited numerous "friend of the court" briefs from opponents of affirmative action, including one written by Robert H. Bork and other conservative lawyers.
But how broadly the justices will interpret these cases remains an open question. During oral arguments yesterday, two justices who could prove to be swing votes, Sandra Day O'Connor and Anthony M. Kennedy, were treading cautiously.
Hawaii defends its policy limiting those who can vote for the special trust on the grounds that it turns, not on race, but on whether someone is a potential beneficiary of the program. The Justice Department has sided with the state, arguing that native Hawaiians are in a comparable situation to American Indians, to whom the government owes a certain responsibility for the loss of sovereignty over their land.
Kennedy seemed unpersuaded by arguments that the policy wasn't racial bias. But he suggested the court might rule on Rice v. Cayetano in a limited fashion.
The Louisiana dispute concerns a provision in voting rights law that requires certain states and localities with a history of discrimination to get permission from the Justice Department before adopting a redistricting plan or other practices that affect voting rights.
The key question is whether the provision allows the Justice Department to reject a redistricting plan only if it leaves minorities worse off. The government argues that the attorney general should be able to veto a redistricting proposal based on the broader grounds that it has a discriminatory purpose, for example, to dilute African American voting strength.
A ruling in the case will have an impact on the federal government's ability to enforce the Voting Rights Act of 1965, particularly as disputes arise in a new round of redistricting after the 2000 census.
O'Connor and other justices observed that it may be hard for a school board to prove the absence of a discriminatory intent and that a clearer standard might be needed. The justices held arguments on this case, Reno v. Bossier Parish School Board, last term, but failed to decide it and are trying again.