Largely black district upheld

Supreme Court finds lines may have been political, not racial

Vote is 5-4 in N.C. case

April 19, 2001|By Thomas Healy | Thomas Healy,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - In a ruling that could make it easier for states to draw congressional districts that favor minorities, a sharply divided Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of a snake-shaped district in North Carolina with far more black voters than others in the state.

Ruling 5-4 yesterday, the court rejected the claim of opponents that race - specifically, an effort to include as many black voters as possible - was the main factor in the drawing of the district lines.

The court said those lines could just as easily be explained by political considerations, such as a desire to retain Democratic control over the area.

FOR THE RECORD - An article yesterday about a Supreme Court ruling on the drawing of congressional districts misidentified the group represented by Adam Stein, a North Carolina lawyer. He argued the case on behalf of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc. The Sun regrets the error.

"The evidence ... does not show that racial considerations predominated in the drawing of District 12's boundaries," Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote for the majority. "That is because in this case race closely correlates with political behavior."

The court's decision had been widely anticipated by state lawmakers across the country, who are preparing to redraw district lines on the basis of the 2000 census.

Many had worried that such efforts to ensure minority representation would be struck down by a court that has been generally hostile to race-based legislation.

But the majority's opinion suggested that state lawmakers might have more latitude than they had assumed. The court went to great pains to find a nonracial explanation for the shape of the North Carolina district, closely examining the evidence that was presented to a lower court.

And the justices warned that courts must "exercise extraordinary caution" in reviewing claims that state legislatures have drawn district lines on the basis of race.

"The message to the courts is to leave the legislature alone unless there is very strong evidence that it was race and not politics that motivated the legislature," said Adam Stein, a North Carolina lawyer who argued in favor of the district boundaries on behalf of the NAACP.

"I think there's much more of a safety zone now for legislatures to draw districts in this context."

Yesterday's decision was the fourth time in the past decade that the justices have ruled on North Carolina's redistricting efforts.

The matter first came to the court in 1992, when a group of white voters challenged the creation of a 160-mile-long district that zig-zagged across the state. The creation of the district led to the election of Melvin Watt, one of two blacks elected to Congress in 1992 from a state that had not sent a black congressman to Washington since 1901.

In that initial case, the court ruled that the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment barred states from separating voters on the basis of race unless there was a compelling reason for doing so. That ruling - a landmark in the area of discrimination law - led the court to invalidate the North Carolina district and disproportionately black districts in Georgia, Florida and Texas.

North Carolina responded to those decisions by redrawing the 12th Congressional District in 1997. This time, the district was only 95 miles long, and its shape was not as unconventional as before. But its population was 47 percent black - compared with a 20 percent black population statewide - and white voters again took the state to court.

After a three-day trial, a federal District Court ruled for the plaintiffs, concluding that race had been the predominant factor in the legislature's drawing of the district.

The District Court rejected North Carolina's argument that it had drawn the district lines to ensure the election of a Democrat - black or otherwise - and thus maintain an even split in the state's congressional delegation along party lines. If that had been the state's motivation, the District Court reasoned, it would not have excluded a precinct of white voters that had more registered Democrats than some black precincts in the district.

Breyer said that reasoning was faulty. He pointed out that even though the white precinct contained more registered Democrats, some of those voters tend to cross party lines to vote Republican. Voters in the black precinct, by contrast, tend to stick with their party affiliation.

"A legislature trying to secure a safe Democratic seat is interested in Democratic voting behavior," not voting registration, Breyer wrote.

"Hence, a legislature may, by placing reliable Democratic precincts within a district without regard to race, end up with a district containing more heavily African-American precincts, but the reasons would be political rather than racial."

Breyer's opinion was joined by Justices John Paul Stevens, Sandra Day O'Connor, David H. Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Justice Clarence Thomas filed a dissenting opinion that was joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia and Anthony M. Kennedy.

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