States face hard decisions

April 23, 2001|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- With the 2000 census behind us, state legislatures around the country are grappling with the politically thorny matter of congressional redistricting, with population shifts from the East to the South and West requiring major decisions to be made.

None is more difficult than satisfying the Voting Rights Act requirement that race must be taken into account in drawing congressional district lines so that minority voters are not for all practical purposes disenfranchised.

Until last week, the Supreme Court had gone along with lower courts' rulings that lines drawn specifically on race to create majority or near-majority districts of African-American voters were unconstitutional, as violations of the rights of white voters in such districts under the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.

But the court the other day upheld just such a district in North Carolina represented for three terms by a black congressman, Democrat Melvin Watt. It found that the moving of precincts of strong African-American population was justifiable on political rather than predominantly racial grounds because blacks' voting behavior was heavily Democratic.

Justice Stephen Breyer, writing the majority opinion, found that because African-Americans vote so "reliably" Democratic -- about 95 percent in this particular district -- the lines could be drawn to preserve a Democratic majority by including a large percentage of black voters. "Race in this case correlates closely with political behavior," he wrote.

Although it may seem at first blush unreasonable, the courts found long ago that redistricting decisions by the state legislature may be made for purely partisan reasons such as protecting incumbents and helping elect more officials of the party controlling the legislature. So creating a Democratic incumbent or Democratic-controlled congressional district by moving black precincts into it was ruled OK, because the predominant motivation was political, not racial.

What brought about the 5-4 court reversal was the presentation of factual data on how heavily and consistently African-Americans in the state's 12th congressional district vote Democratic, which apparently was convincing to the swing justice, Sandra Day O'Connor, who was already was on record in support of the Voting Rights Act. She concurred in Mr. Breyer's decision without comment.

The decision has been hailed in the African-American community and among Democratic Party strategists. But in some cases it could be a boon to the Republicans if so many black voters are moved into a particular district that the action renders surrounding congressional districtsstronger or safe for Republican candidates.

It was interesting, but according to veteran Supreme Court watchers, not surprising, that the dissenting opinion was written by Justice Clarence Thomas, the court's only black member, a conspicuous opponent of affirmative action and thus regarded as a pariah among many fellow African-Americans. His opinion, however, was bland, arguing merely that the lower court ruling that had declared the district's lines unconstitutional was not "clearly erroneous."

For once, it was Mr. Thomas' mentor, Justice Antonin Scalia, who joined in the dissent and had nothing to say rather than the other way around, as has often occurred -- most notably in the 5-4 decision in December that made George W. Bush president.

One of the ironies in all this is that Mr. Watt's congressional district, for all the turmoil over it in the 1990s including bizarrely drawn lines for much of that time, has a black population of only 47 percent. According to David Bositis, senior political analyst for the Joint Center for Political Studies, the major think tank on African-American politics, throughout the South blacks make up only 42 percent of all congressional districts represented by black members of Congress.

A practical effect of the decision should be to make life a bit easier for state legislatures as they undertake adjustments required by the 2000 census.

At the same time, Mr. Bositis says, it should provide relief to court calendars that have been heavily burdened by such redistricting challenges ever since the 1990 census by making it less difficult to defend the proposition that race is not the sole or dominant factor used in moving precincts of heavy black voting concentration.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington Bureau.

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