WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Just about everyone who has looked at North Carolina's redistricting plan says the plan is idiotic. Indeed it is. The plan is lunacy on a grand scale, but the Department of Justice approved it anyhow. Common sense has fled from the temples of statecraft.
The problem developed after the census of 1990, when North Carolina was awarded a 12th seat in the House of Representatives. Boundaries for the state's congressional districts had to be redrawn. Democrats control the state's General Assembly. They bent happily to their partisan task.
If the Democrats' handiwork were no more than the usual fun and games, the matter might have subsided with the usual sputters. After all, partisan gerrymandering is old stuff. The invidious practice dates from 1812, when Gov. Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts set out to assure an anti-Federalist majority in the state senate.
North Carolina's problem was compounded by requirements of the Voting Rights Act. Because of its long-gone history of racial segregation, North Carolina must submit every state law that deals with voting to the Department of Justice for approval. The department, noting that blacks constitute 22 percent of North Carolina's population, insisted that new district lines must be drawn so that blacks would predominate in two of them.
This is where the lunacy got out of hand. Pardon a personal note. When the first Voting Rights Act was passed in 1964, I supported it heart and soul. I am a Southern boy, and I know at first hand what contemptible measures were devised throughout the South in order to keep blacks from the polls. The high purpose of the act, as I understood it, was to remove every barrier that had prevented blacks from registering and voting like everyone else. If it would require U.S. marshals to enforce the law, bring 'em in.
As the years passed, a strange concept arose. The right to vote, an individual right, gradually metamorphosed into a group right -- a right that could not be ''diluted.'' Then the group right to vote became a group right to win. That is where we stand today, drawing lines on the racist theory that blacks have a right to elect blacks.
It is a stultifying theory. It flies in the face of democracy. Politically speaking, it does the blacks no long-term good, for this benign paternalism inevitably must strand minorities in islands away from the mainstream of political life.
North Carolina's solution was to revise its First District and create a new 12th District. Both districts would contain a politically correct proportion of black voters. Just incidentally, the plan might shift North Carolina's delegation in the House from 7-4 Democratic to 9-3 Democratic, but such skullduggery is within the rules. Republicans would skewer Democrats if they could.
The new 12th District begins north of Durham, wanders westward to Greensboro, and then runs in a stringy line down Interstate 85 all the way to Charlotte. It rather resembles a lower intestine. The inventors of this preposterous scheme scooped up pockets of black voters wherever they could find them. At some points the east lane of I-85 is in one district and the west lane is in another. This is gerrymandering madness.
Nothing remains of the old concept of compact districts composed of contiguous communities. To the racists of the Justice Department, solemnly counting black noses and white noses, the quality of representation is immaterial. ''Population is the controlling criterion,'' said Earl Warren in Reynolds v. Sims in 1964. Legislators represent people, said the chief justice, not trees or acres. Warren did not altogether reject the importance of natural and historical boundary lines, but ''citizens, not history or economic interests, cast votes.''
If plaintiffs can be found in North Carolina with standing to sue, the ruling of the Justice Department will be appealed. Perhaps the Supreme Court is now ready to adopt a common-sense view expressed by Justice Lewis Powell in 1983:
''A legislator cannot represent his constituents properly -- nor can voters from a fragmented district exercise the ballot intelligently -- when a voting district is nothing more than an artificial unit divorced from, and indeed often in conflict with, the various communities established in the state.''
That's the new 12th District of North Carolina. They call it the I-85 district. What it is, is idiot's delight.
James J. Kilpatrick is a syndicated columnist.