Court backs black, Hispanic districts

January 08, 1991|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- A unanimous Supreme Court gave black and Hispanic voters strong new assurances yesterday that they can expect to dominate the outcome of some elections for seats in state legislatures and local governing bodies.

In one 9-0 ruling and in a separate order that drew no dissent, the court indicated clearly that minority voters whose votes have been diluted when election districts were carved out in the past are to be given a much better chance through redistricting to have candidates of their choice elected.

The court upheld a ruling a year ago by a federal court in Arkansas saying that blacks -- in situations where racial bias kept them away from the polls, as in the Deep South -- must be placed in state legislative districts in which more than 60 percent of the voters are black.

Such a "super-majority," the lower court had said, was necessary in three parts of Arkansas to make sure that blacks have enough politi

cal strength in those districts that they can overcome the lingering effects of past bias, and have a chance to turn white incumbents out of office in favor of black candidates. The lower court approved or ordered a variety of new districts, with four of them having black voting majorities of 60.5, 64, 64 and 65 percent. In addition to those four new 60-plus districts, an additional six districts had black majorities between 53 and 58 percent.

Those 10 new districts were to be drawn up explicitly to cure past bias against blacks.

The Supreme Court gave no reason for its decision to uphold the new Arkansas districts. The Justice Department, contradicting the views of the dissenting judge in the lower court, had told the justices that the lower court ruling posed no new legal issues under the Voting Rights Act.

Arkansas officials had contended in their appeal (Clinton vs. Jeffers, No. 89-2008) that the new districting plan represented the "triumph of proportional representation."

In the Supreme Court's second action on minority voting rights, the

court left intact a lower court ruling that strongly enhances the prospect that Hispanic residents of Los Angeles County can elect a Hispanic to the county Board of Supervisors.

The lower court had ruled that, to overcome past bias against Hispanics, a new districting plan had to be drawn up that created all districts equal in population -- with equality keyed to total population, not to those eligible to vote, because many Hispanics in the area are not citizens or are children, and thus are not voters.

Hispanics had challenged a 1981 redistricting plan, contending that it diluted Hispanics' voting power.

A new primary election in a new court-ordered district with a Hispanic majority is to be held Jan. 22. The case was Los Angeles County vs. Garza (No. 90-849).

Outside the area of minority voting rights, the Supreme Court took another major action yesterday: It agreed to decide later this year whether private defense lawyers have a constitutional right to make public statements, outside of court, about their clients' criminal cases.

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