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Justices Weigh Race-Conscious Efforts To Redraw Political Districts

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Washington

The U.S. Supreme Court last week weighed the constitutionality of the practice of drawing voting-district lines to boost the election prospects of candidates who are members of racial minorities.

Although the High Court considered that question in two cases stemming from Congressional redistricting, its decisions will also affect redistricting at the school-board level, experts say.

Holding specially drawn, predominantly minority districts to a higher degree of constitutional scrutiny might "invalidate most of the Congressional, state, and local redistricting plans in the South as well as in other parts of the nation," argued the American Civil Liberties Union in a friend-of-the-court brief.

"Given the fact that minorities have been elected almost exclusively in majority-minority districts, legislative bodies at the national, state, and local levels would become primarily white," the A.C.L.U. argued.

The High Court is considering race-conscious redistricting for the first time since its 1993 ruling in Shaw v. Reno that a bizarrely shaped minority voting district was unconstitutional, and such redistricting plans must be narrowly tailored to advance a compelling state interest.

The Court on April 19 heard arguments in a pair of cases that challenged Congressional districts in Louisiana and Georgia. In the Louisiana case, U.S. v. Hays (Case No. 94-558), a special three-judge U.S. District Court panel ruled that race-conscious redistricting is always subject to a high level of constitutional review, striking down a redistricting plan crafted to give the state its second majority-black Congressional district.

In the Georgia case, Miller v. Johnson (No. 94-631), another three-judge U.S. District Court panel struck down a majority-black Congressional district, but that court issued a narrower ruling than the federal panel in the Louisiana case.

Other Actions

At the High Court last week, a key question for some Justices was whether traditional assumptions about voting patterns still hold true.

When Richard P. Ieyoub, Louisiana's attorney general, said in defense of minority districts that racial-bloc voting is part of his state's history, Associate Justice Anthony M. Kennedy asked, "If you accept that, do you draw districts to try to perpetuate it or to try to eliminate it?"

But Associate Justice John Paul Stevens questioned whether it is really "invidious" to assume that most African-Americans--or most Polish-Americans--vote similarly.

"Don't you think," he asked the lawyer for the voters who challenged the Louisiana district, that "more black legislators would have voted [for the redistricting plan]?"

The High Court's ruling is expected by late June.

In separate actions last week, the Court:

Threw out a lower court's ruling in a long-running dispute over a Mississippi law governing school district boundaries.

The dispute in Moore v. Dupree (No. 94-66) concerns whether the U.S. Justice Department gave the law proper review as required by the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The Justices asked a special three-judge U.S. District Court in Hattiesburg, Miss., to clarify which aspects of the state law it has blocked state officials from enforcing.

Let stand a federal appeals-court ruling that invalidated part of an affirmative-action plan for the Birmingham, Ala., fire department. The Court rejected without comment the appeals of the lower-court ruling by the city and a group of black firefighters. The cases were Arrington v. Wilks and Martin v. Wilks (Nos. 94-1397 and 94-1422.)

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