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Court Ordered To Reconsider Miss. Voting-Rights Case

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Washington--The U.S. Supreme Court last week ordered a lower court to reconsider a Mississippi case in which the U.S. Justice Department has concluded that a 1986 state law governing changes in school-district boundaries appears to dilute the political strength of some black voters.

The immediate issue in the case, Dupree v. Moore (Case No. 90-1977), is a procedural question involving Section 5 of the federal Voting Rights Act, which requires jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination in voting practices to get federal approval for any change in voting procedures. Mississippi is one of several states covered by the law.

In 1986, the state passed a comprehensive school-reform measure that made numerous changes to existing state law, including the repeal of a provision that automatically extended the boundaries of municipal school districts when cities annexed land. The law also added a provision that school districts could expand with the consent of the school system that was giving up territory.

Mississippi submitted its lengthy "Uniform School Law'' to the U.S. attorney general for approval under the Voting Rights Act, specifically highlighting 13 provisions it said might affect voting.

The state did not, however, highlight the repeal of the automatic boundary extension for city school districts.

The attorney general did not object to the law at that time. About three years later, however, after learning more about the change affecting school-district boundaries, federal officials did object.

Potential Negative Influence

Since elected city leaders appoint the trustees of city school systems, the Justice Department said, the repeal of the automatic boundary extension would give some city voters outside the school-district boundaries electoral power over the school system.

And since the voters in the newly annexed areas were more likely to be white and the city school districts had a heavier black population, the change had "the potential to impact negatively on the influence of minority city school-district residents,'' the department said in 1989.

Black voters and several black school trustees relied on that reasoning in a 1990 lawsuit filed after the city of Hattiesburg annexed land in neighboring Forrest and Lamar counties but did not change the boundaries of the municipal school district.

The plaintiffs argued that such an arrangement should be barred because it diluted their voting strength and because the state failed to get the attorney general to properly approve the change in the law governing the automatic boundary extensions.

A special three-judge U.S. District Court panel dismissed the suit last year, concluding that the attorney general approved the entire state education law as submitted in 1986 and that the later objections to the annexation provision were not valid.

In its action last week, the High Court signaled that the lower court had reached the wrong conclusion.

In a brief order, the justices said the district court should reconsider the Mississippi case in light of their ruling last spring in Clark v. Roemer. In that case, which involved the election of judges in Louisiana, the Court said a state "must identify with specificity'' each voting change it wants the attorney general to consider.

In a case closely related to the Hattiesburg suit, the justices last week declined to review a Mississippi Supreme Court ruling that the U.S. attorney general had passed up the chance to object to the annexation change when the school law was approved in 1986.

U.S. Solicitor General Kenneth W. Starr argued that it was doubtful the Mississippi court had proper jurisdiction over the voting-rights matter, but he nonetheless urged the justices not to review its ruling. That case was Greenville Public School District v. Western Line Consolidated School District (No. 90-1861).

In other action last week:

  • The Court agreed to review a Hialeah, Fla., law that bans the religious sacrifice of animals.

The case marks the Court's first major return to the issue of free exercise of religion since its controversial 1990 ruling in Employment Division v. Smith, in which it held that Oregon did not have to make an exception to its drug laws to allow Indians to make ceremonial use of peyote.

Some education groups believe that ruling will encourage states to adopt stricter rules governing religious schools.

  • The Court took action that allows a financial sanction against a parent who sued his son's Maryland private school over a disciplinary action. The parent lost in federal district court, and he and his lawyer were each ordered to pay half of a $30,000 sanction for filing a frivolous lawsuit, plus legal fees.

A federal appellate court upheld the sanction, and the parent failed to filed a petition for review with the Supreme Court within the allowed time. Last week, the Court denied his motion to allow the petition to be filed late. The case was Haugh v. Bullis School.

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