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Impact of Rulings in Two Voting-Rights Cases Argued

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Washington

The U.S. Supreme Court has issued two rulings that narrow the scope of the federal Voting Rights Act, but legal observers disagree about the decisions' potential impact on cases involving minority representation on school boards.

In a case involving the redistricting of the Florida legislature, the High Court ruled 7 to 2 that the law does not compel the state to maximize the number of districts with black or Hispanic majorities.

Associate Justice David H. Souter's majority opinion in Johnson v. DeGrandy (Case No. 92-519) said that the state's redistricting plan provided for adequate proportional representation of minority groups.

In Holder v. Hall (No. 91-2012), the Court ruled 5 to 4 that the size of a local governing body cannot be challenged under the federal voting-rights law, upholding a single-commissioner form of government in rural Bleckley County, Ga.

Observers agreed that the Court had narrowly limited the scope of the Voting Rights Act. But Brenda Wright, the director of the voting-rights project of the Washington-based Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said the Court also sent a signal that the law could still be used broadly to challenge local at-large voting systems.

At-Large District

On June 30, the same day it issued its Johnson and Holder rulings, the Court refused without comment to review a ruling that revived a challenge to a Delaware school board's at-large system.

In Red Clay Consolidated School District v. Jenkins (No. 93-812), a federal district judge rejected claims that the system dilutes the political clout of black voters. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit held that it served to defeat minority candidates and ordered the district judge to reconsider.

Instead of vacating the Third Circuit decision and returning it for reconsideration in light of the new rulings, the High Court rejected the appeal, returning the case to the district court.

"This potentially indicates the Court is drawing something of a line between challenges to single-member districting plans and challenges to at-large systems,'' said Ms. Wright, whose organization has helped represent the plaintiffs in the Red Clay case.

But Douglas G. Brehm, a lawyer for the Red Clay school district, said the at-large system has a strong chance of being upheld, because minority candidates' success rate exceeds the proportion of minority residents in the district.

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