The racial gerrymander question Electoral maps: Supreme Court casts shadow on majority-black districts.

June 17, 1996

BY INVALIDATING four majority-minority congressional districts drawn to help increase the representation in Congress of blacks and Hispanics, the Supreme Court has thrown the fall elections in two states into confusion -- without substantially clarifying just what kinds of minority districts it will approve. In the two cases -- one involving three districts in Texas and the other concerning a gerrymandered North Carolina district -- the court produced sharply split decisions.

Even the court's majority failed to agree on the reasoning. Two justices on the winning side, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, held that no district that takes racial demographics into account can pass constitutional muster, but other members of the majority did not share this strict approach. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who wrote one of the majority opinions, took pains to note separately her disagreement with that reasoning.

One point of contention was whether compliance with the federal Voting Rights Act constitutes a "compelling state interest" that justifies the use of race as a consideration in drawing political districts. With the majority of five justices disagreeing among themselves on this question, that issue will likely be revisited in future cases.

In the meantime, voters in these four districts are left to wonder what the courts will come up with before November -- and whether other congressional districts in those states will be affected. Already, primaries have been conducted and candidates selected from the old districts for the general election. Likewise, voters who are concerned about the possibility that the number of minority representatives will diminish are also left in suspense.

While we believe in efforts to increase minority representation, numbers alone are not the best gauge of minority influence in Congress. After all, Republicans cheered on the creation of these districts, since by consolidating minority voters in a few districts it meant that GOP candidates in other districts didn't have to court minority voters. That was not an insignificant factor in the Republican sweep of Congress in 1994. Clearly, the court is still working its way through these highly charged issues.

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