Voting plan in Worcester is made final Supreme Court order ends 4-year battle on redistricting

'I'm glad it's over'

Ex-commissioners appealed, claiming 'racial gerrymander'

June 25, 1996|By Lyle Denniston and Dail Willis | Lyle Denniston and Dail Willis,SUN STAFF

After a courtroom battle lasting nearly four years, a redistricting plan for electing the Worcester County Board of Commissioners -- imposed last year by a federal court -- became final yesterday in a brief order by the Supreme Court.

Without comment, the court refused to hear a claim by former commissioners that the voting districts used for the first time in the 1995 elections were the result of an unconstitutional "racial gerrymander" to give blacks in the county control over a seat on the board.

Since the Supreme Court gives no reasons for refusing to hear a case, it was unclear why the justices apparently had concluded that there was no constitutional defect in the appeals court's plan.

In a series of rulings over the past three years, including one last week, the high court has condemned redistricting plans based primarily on race. Those decisions have come in congressional redistricting cases, but the court has left no doubt it would apply the same in state and local redistricting situations.

At the same time, however, the court has said repeatedly that it was not ruling out all use of race as a reason for drawing districting lines, if that was justified by strong reasons -- such as avoiding the dilution of blacks' strength in politics.

Yesterday's order in the Worcester County case removed any lingering constitutional threat to the five-member commissioners plan that the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond ordered into effect for primary and general elections last year.

Among the attorneys and citizens involved with the long-running case, there was a sense of relief on both sides.

"We're extremely pleased to see this case finally end on a successful note," said Deborah Jeon, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union in Centreville. "It's been a long time coming."

Edward H. Hammond Jr., the county attorney for Worcester, had a similar reaction: "I'm glad it's over."

James L. Purnell Jr., elected in the new District 3 and the first black on the board, said he was pleased with the court's action.

"I think it's marvelous, and it's a victory for us," Purnell said. "We can close the books on this lawsuit and go to work. Justice has been truly served."

Before a court-ordered special election in November, a black never had been elected to county office in Worcester's 253-year history. Purnell won by defeating incumbent board President Floyd E. Bassett. His district has a 58 percent black majority.

That district was drawn up by a group of local civil rights organizations and black voters, and was adopted by the appeals court, which said blacks in the county had waited long enough for a remedy to the violations of their voting rights under federal law.

Worcester County formerly elected all five of its commissioners in countywide elections, with four of the five having to live in specified districts. Civil rights groups and black voters challenged that system in federal court, beginning in 1992, leading to a ruling that the county had to switch to a system in which each commissioner was elected solely by district.

At an earlier stage in the lawsuit, U.S. District Judge Joseph E. Young of Baltimore ordered the county to use a novel voting plan, under which voters each got five votes, and could cast them all for a single commissioner candidate -- a method the judge thought would allow blacks to control one seat.

That plan, as well as a variation of it later ordered by Young, was rejected by the appeals court, which then ordered into effect the alternative plan that now exists. Voters choose five commissioners from five separate districts.

The commissioners chosen under that plan will serve until after the next regular election, in November 1998.

Pub Date: 6/25/96

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