Election Ruling Could Affect School Boards
In a major voting-rights decision, the U.S. Supreme Court may have called into question many legislative maps that were redrawn to increase minority representation--including some that set districts for local school board elections.
In a 5-to-4 decision, the Court last month struck down a Georgia redistricting plan designed to help black Congressional candidates get elected.
In Miller v. Johnson (Case No. 94-631), the Justices scrutinized the state's 11th Congressional District, which extends more than 260 miles and takes in predominantly black neighborhoods of Atlanta and Savannah. The state legislature had approved a new district map to satisfy the U.S. Justice Department, which had rejected two previous versions for failing to maximize black voting strength. Five white voters challenged the plan.
Writing for the majority, Associate Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said such race-based redistricting is unconstitutional if it does not address a specific, proven harm or serve a compelling government interest.
The Court had made that point in an earlier case. But its opinion in Miller also held that the Justice Department ~had overstepped its bounds in interpreting the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to require legislative maps that maximize the number of districts that have black voter majorities.
That approach, Justice Kennedy wrote, violates the constitutional requirement that the government treat people as individuals. "It takes a shortsighted and unauthorized view of the Voting Rights Act to invoke that statute, which has played a decisive role in redressing some of our worst forms of discrimination, to demand the very racial stereotyping that the 14th Amendment forbids," he said.
School Boards Vulnerable?
Legal experts--and the Justices themselves--were divided about the decision's likely impact.
In a concurring opinion, Associate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote that applying the Court's new standards ~"does not throw into doubt the vast majority of the nation's 435 Congressional districts," which, she said, presumably were configured based on a variety of considerations.
But a dissenting opinion, written by Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, said the majority decision means "a federal case can be mounted whenever plaintiffs plausibly allege that other factors carried less weight than race" in the drawing of a legislative map.
"We thought it was a splendid decision that will begin to move us past the racial divide in politics," said Clint Bolick, the litigation director of the Institute for Justice, a Washington-based, libertarian legal-advocacy group.
Meanwhile, groups such as the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Congressional Black Caucus, and the American Civil Liberties Union said that the ruling weakens the Voting Rights Act and opens the door to efforts to purge minorities from power.
August W. Steinhilber, the general counsel for the National School Boards Association, said that most maps drawn for school board elections have been noncontroversial and that the relatively small size of such districts has generally discouraged such gerrymandering.
But Pamela S. Karlan, a law professor at the University of Virginia and a former voting-rights lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, estimated that more than a thousand school districts have sought to increase minority representation in drawing boundaries for school board races, and she predicted that those plans eventually will come under fire.