Voting Rights Act applied to judgeships Local votes included in law barring bias

June 21, 1991|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Assuring blacks and other minorities of a chance to help control the choice of state and local judges at all levels, the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 yesterday that a 1982 federal voting rights law covers the election of judges.

The ruling has no effect on federal judges, who are appointed for life.

In a decision with potential impact in the 41 states that elect some or all of their judges, the court rejected an argument that judges do not "represent" the voters and thus that Congress did not intend to assure minorities an equal role in their election.

The ruling came in two cases: one involving blacks' claims that they were being shut out of choosing a justice of their choice for the Louisiana Supreme Court, and one in which blacks and Hispanics said they were being denied a chance to influence the election of trial court judges in Texas.

In a second major ruling yesterday on state judges, the justices ++ ruled that states are free, if they wish, to force judges to retire at a specific age. That does not violate either the Constitution or the federal law forbidding age bias on the job, the court ruled 7-2 in a Missouri case.

The court's ruling on the rights of minorities in state elections for judgeships upheld a position pressed by civil rights groups and by the Bush administration. After the ruling, Assistant Attorney General John R. Dunne said the Justice Department would "redouble our efforts" to see that there was no discrimination against minorities, or dilution of their voting strength, in any elections at the state or local levels.

The decision involved a broad law Congress passed in 1982 to overturn an earlier Supreme Court decision. In 1980, the court had ruled that the federal ban on election procedures that deny the right to vote because of "race or color" only protected racial minorities against intentional acts of bias.

Congress rewrote the law to say that discrimination is outlawed when, though unintentional, it diluted the voting strength of blacks and denied them a chance to choose "representatives" of their choice. Yesterday, the court ruled for the first time that that law reaches elections of judgeships, too, even though judges normally are thought not to be representatives, in the sense of being politically responsive.

The decision came in the cases of Chisom vs. Roemer (90-757) and Houston Lawyers vs. Texas Attorney General (No. 90-813).

In the Missouri judicial retirement case (Gregory vs. Ashcroft, No. 90-50), the court upheld a clause put into the state constitution in 1976 requiring all state judges -- appointed and elected -- to retire at age 70.

It does not apply to municipal judges.

Two appointed judges, ages 63 and 70, contended in their appeal that the forced retirement clause was unconstitutional because it singled out judges and did not apply to other state officials, and that it was illegal because it violated the no-forced-retirement guarantee of the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act.

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