Justices limit use of race in redistricting 'Gerrymandering' in extreme creates constitutional risk

June 29, 1993|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau Staff writers Fraser Smith and Nelson Schwartz contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court ruled for the first time yesterday that state legislatures may get into constitutional trouble by packing minority voters from scattered areas into a voting district, even if the aim is to give minorities more strength at the ballot box.

In a 5-4 decision that raised a legal cloud over the wave of new districts drawn with black and ethnic majorities, the court put new but uncertain limits on "racial gerrymandering."

The constitutional risk will arise, the court made clear, when a legislature draws a new district in an odd, meandering shape so that it reaches blacks who live in separate communities and even in different counties.

When a district turns out to have a "bizarre, extremely irregular" shape, the majority said, it will be treated as an unconstitutional move "to segregate the races" -- unless state officials can give truly convincing reasons to justify the district.

The exact meaning and impact of the ruling was unclear yesterday, because the court did not spell out exactly when a new minority-dominated district would run afoul of the new ruling and the justices did not specify the reasons officials could give to explain away any indication that the races were being segregated.

The main issue the court left open was whether new districts could pass the new constitutional test if they were created explicitly to obey the demands of federal voting rights law.

Under 1982 changes in that law, designed to assure blacks and other minorities of a chance to exercise their potential political power, minority-dominated districts are being set up in many states,

Two of these new districts in North Carolina resulted in the first blacks being elected to Congress from that state since Reconstruction.

Maryland has created a new black-dominated congressional district, the 4th, centered in Prince George's County, to satisfy the Voting Rights Act and various federal court rulings.

State officials said yesterday that the new district appeared to be free of the "bizarre" characteristics of the North Carolina congressional district that was at issue in the Supreme Court case.

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who wrote the court's main opinion, said North Carolina's 160-mile-long 12th District "resembles a snake." It meanders down Interstate 85 southwesterly across North Carolina, sometimes reaching little beyond the roadside shoulders.

"A reapportionment plan that includes in one district individuals who belong to the same race, but who are otherwise widely separated by geographical and political boundaries, and who may have little in common with one another but the color of their skin, bears an uncomfortable resemblance to political apartheid," Justice O'Connor declared.

Although the court sent that case back to lower courts for further review, and suggested that North Carolina might yet be able to justify that district's lines, the O'Connor opinion seemed deeply skeptical of that.

"It is unsettling how closely the North Carolina plan resembles the most egregious racial gerrymanders of the past," she wrote.

Although the court has been ruling on redistricting cases for 30 years, it never had ruled specifically on the constitutionality of "racial gerrymandering" in redistricting cases.

The new decision may have its greatest impact after the new round of congressional and state legislature redistricting stemming from the next census in 2000.

It appears that the federal court in Baltimore will have to apply the justices' new ruling on lawsuits challenging Maryland's new General Assembly districts.

One suit was filed by the headquarters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, claiming that more minority districts could have been drawn in Maryland.

Another challenge is by Marylanders for Fair Representation, a largely Republican group. David D. Queen, the group's attorney, said that the new Supreme Court decision means that "when you set out to engage in using voter race as a criteria except when strictly applying the Voting Rights Act you do so at great risk."

Maryland's new congressional districts were challenged unsuccessfully in a federal court lawsuit by Anne Arundel County Republicans.

Robert Hunter, a Washington lawyer specializing in election lawsuits and a former chairman of the North Carolina Board of Elections, suggested that the ruling is likely to be applied mainly to "extraordinarily shaped [black] districts."

OTHER COURT ACTION

Supreme Court strikes down a 1923 ruling that severely limited expert witnesses in drug liability cases. Page 4A.

The high court upholds the right of Maryland and other states tsue insurance companies for intentionally lowering their coverage. Page 10C.

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