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School Board Voting-Rights Case Accepted

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Washington

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed last week to examine the way school board redistricting influences minority voting rights.

Acting in a case with implications for school districts throughout the South, the court said it will hear a challenge to a Louisiana school board's redistricting plan that included no majority-black districts. The Department of Justice had appealed a federal court's approval of the plan.

At the time of last fall's ruling by a special three-judge federal district court here, no African-American candidate had ever been elected to the Bossier Parish, La., school board, although black residents make up 17 percent of the voting-age population in the 86,000-resident parish near Shreveport. Two black candidates were elected to the 12-member board this spring from majority-white districts, but the Supreme Court theoretically will not consider that development.

The issue presented by the case places it at the heart of a vibrant debate among the justices about the proper reach of the federal voting-rights law.

In two recent cases dealing with congressional redistricting in Southern states, a slim majority of the court has expressed discomfort with the use of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to bring about the formation of majority-black voting districts.

Civil rights activists argue that even three decades after its passage, the law's promise of guaranteeing all citizens equal voting power has yet to be realized.

"Bossier is not alone ... there are hundreds of governmental bodies in covered jurisdictions which, like the school board, have no black elected members," argues a brief filed with the high court on behalf of black residents of the Louisiana school district.

The legal issue before the court in Reno v. Bossier Parish School Board (Case No. 95-1455) involves a complex interpretation of the evidence judges should examine when considering possible violations of the Voting Rights Act. The landmark law bars racial discrimination in voting practices nationwide; it includes special procedures for states and local governments that, at the time of its passage, had a history of imposing roadblocks to black citizens' participation at the polls.

'Police Jury' Plan

In the Bossier Parish case, the school board has resisted efforts by the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and other black community groups, and later by the Justice Department, to create two majority-black districts.

Under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, Bossier Parish must submit any changes in voting procedures, including redistricting plans, to either the Justice Department or a special three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court in Washington. The procedure was included in the voting-rights law to frustrate efforts by Southern officials to devise new methods of keeping electoral power from blacks.

The Bossier case dates to 1991, when the board of the 18,500-student school system began to consider redistricting following the 1990 U.S. Census. Community groups led by black residents asked to participate in the process in hopes of creating two black-majority districts for the 12-member board. But the school board instead adopted the same district lines as the parish's governing commission, known in most Louisiana parishes as the police jury, which also had 12 members.

While the Justice Department had already approved the district lines for the police jury, opponents argued that the approval was based on inadequate information and that two compact, black-majority districts could easily be drawn. Opponents also contended that the school board had a history of racial discrimination that included slow efforts to desegregate its schools.

The Justice Department in 1993 rejected the school board's plan. It suggested that "black residents are sufficiently numerous and geographically compact so as to constitute a majority in two single-member districts."

But the federal district court in Washington voted 2-1 last November to approve the school board's preferred redistricting. The court said the Justice Department did not prove that the board's plan would leave black voters worse off than they were before.

'Social Engineering'

In the appeal to the Supreme Court, the Justice Department and black community members from Bossier Parish argued that the Washington court's decision "seriously undermines" enforcement of the law.

"We feel that we have proven that the school board acted with a discriminatory purpose," said Samuel L. Walters of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a Washington-based group that represents the black residents of the parish.

The school board, meanwhile, argues that the parish's black population is scattered and that compact majority-black districts could not be easily drawn. The board also accuses the Justice Department of "social engineering" for demanding two black districts to conform to the proportion of African-Americans in the parish.

And James J. Thornton, the board's lawyer, said in an interview that the Justice Department's case was undercut by the election of two black board members under the challenged plan.

Arkansas Case

In another school voting-rights case, the Supreme Court last week rejected without comment an appeal by the Blytheville, Ark., school district over its disputed at-large voting system.

Black voters challenged the system in 1989 but lost in federal district court. But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit last year reversed the district court's decision, ruling that the election system diluted minority voting strength. The appeal was Blytheville School District v. Harvell (No. 95-1351).

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