Redistricting and race

Supreme Court: Ruling upholds packing of minorities into a few congressional districts.

April 23, 2001

THE SUPREME Court may never get out of the redistricting brier patch.

This thicket of political manipulation seems to defy efforts by the high court to define, once and for all, how congressional boundaries should be redrawn every 10 years.

Even as the redistricting cycle following the 2000 census is about to begin, the high court finds itself still haggling over a case stemming from the 1990 census redistricting.

Unfortunately, the court's 5-4 decision may have made matters worse, not better.

Was a snake-like congressional district in North Carolina drawn that way because of race or politics? Officials admitted the goal was to cram so many black Democrats into this district that a minority candidate would be elected.

The original drawing was so bizarre it was rejected by the high court in 1993. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor compared it to South Africa's apartheid effort. A revised but still snake-like and heavily black district was drawn in 1997. This time, the Supreme Court gave its approval.

Why? Because politics, not race, was seen as the predominant force. A one-vote court majority determined that just about any contorted mapmaking is legal if the chief motivation is politics.

That ruling could open the door

to more redistricting mischief. It could lead to packing minorities into a handful of districts so the rest are lily-white. That would benefit Republicans in most states.

Encouraging congressional districts that favored minority candidates was added to the Voting Rights Act in 1982 by Democrats. But Republicans soon recognized this could help them, too. It became a key factor in their successful drive to win control of Congress.

Justice Clarence Thomas, in dissent, criticized North Carolina officials because they had been "targeting voters and shifting district boundaries purely on the basis of race." He concluded that "racial gerrymandering offends the Constitution whether the motivation is malicious or benign."

Fortunately, the justices will have plenty of chances to revisit this flawed decision as new redistricting disputes wind up in court. Next time, maybe they'll get it right.

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