Supreme Court decision asserts states' authority over redistricting plans

March 03, 1993|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- A unanimous Supreme Court gave state legislatures broad authority under federal law yesterday to create election districts that have definite voting control for blacks or other minorities.

Legislatures may draw up such districts, the court ruled, even if those are not meant to remedy past dilution of minorities' political clout in districts where whites had greater strength at the polls.

State legislators may have varying reasons for creating minority-dominated districts. Sometimes, it may be done to give minorities a greater chance to choose candidates of their own choice -- a gesture that minorities favor. At other times, it may be done to "pack" minorities into a few districts and thus diminish their political power over a broader area -- a result that minorities would not like.

The court's ruling, in fact, came in an Ohio case in which Democrats challenged new minority-dominated districts, fashioned by Republicans, because the Democrats said the plan would ultimately mean blacks had less, not more, political power and would violate blacks' federal voting rights.

The Ohio Democrats complained that the GOP concentrated blacks in eight districts, diminishing their chance of having an influence in other districts where they might be powerful even if not truly in control.

The court's decision leaves it largely to legislatures to create minority control in some districts, for whatever reason other than outright racial bias, without having to clear high legal hurdles set up as federal courts review redistricting.

The court stressed that there is no need for proof of past violations of the Voting Rights Act before a legislature may create minority-controlled districts when drawing boundaries for congressional seats, state legislatures and local bodies.

For the second time in a week, the justices warned federal judges to leave most of the discretion in redistricting to state legislatures. "It is the domain of the states, and not the federal courts, to conduct apportionment in the first place," the court said in an opinion by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. The court noted that it had emphasized that point "time and again" -- as recently as seven days earlier, when it unanimously wiped out a federal court's substitute plan for new districts in Minnesota.

Yesterday's decision offered some strong after-the-fact legal support for the new minority-dominated congressional district in Prince George's County, created by the General Assembly in 1991 redistricting.

When the Prince George's district was created, the General Assembly was seeking to assure blacks in the county a stronger chance to pick candidates of their own choice; there was no proof of prior race bias that needed to be remedied.

The Supreme Court voted in April to uphold the Maryland congressional districts, but it did so without any explanation. Justice O'Connor's opinion in the Ohio case supplied a rationale to bolster the General Assembly's choice to fashion the Prince George's district.

The new decision dealt with eight new Ohio state legislature districts with minority voters making up a majority of the districts' populations. The plan including those districts was approved on a party-line vote by a state apportionment board, with three Republicans favoring the plan and two Democrats voting against it.

The Democrats then took the dispute on to federal court, where a three-judge panel struck down the districts. That court ruled that the Voting Rights Act forbids states to create new minority-dominated districts unless they are trying to cure a past deficiency in minority voters' opportunity to control election outcomes. There was no such effort in this instance, and thus the eight districts had to be nullified.

The Supreme Court, hearing a Democratic appeal, overturned that decision. The court found that the new minority-control districts did not violate the Voting Rights Act or the 15th Amendment, which guarantees the races' equality in voting. The case was sent back to the lower court to hear a different constitutional challenge to the new plan.

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