Court To Weigh Race's Role in Voting Districts

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When the Bossier Parish school board began considering new boundaries for its voting districts in 1992, George Price and others in the local NAACP saw a chance to carve out two majority-black districts.

At the time, no African-American had ever been elected to one of the 12 school board seats in this northwestern Louisiana parish. Mr. Price, the soft-spoken president of the NAACP chapter, argued that the black community should have been represented by one of its own long ago. Blacks make up 20 percent of the parish's population of 86,000 and some 30 percent of the school district's enrollment of 19,000.

"We didn't have anybody for our kids to identify with," Mr. Price, a grandfather and a hospital worker in nearby Shreveport, recalled recently.

Next week, the Bossier Parish school board will go before the U.S. Supreme Court to defend the eventual redistricting plan, which did not include any black-majority districts. The plan was rejected by the U.S. Department of Justice but later upheld by a federal district court. The Justice Department, along with civil rights groups representing Mr. Price and other black Bossier Parish residents, will argue that the school board was trying to keep blacks off the board. The board contends its purposes were hardly sinister.

In redrawing districts following the 1990 U.S. Census, the all-white Bossier Parish board dismissed the NAACP's suggestions. Instead, it adopted the same district lines drawn in 1991 by the parish's main governing commission, known as the police jury. The 12-district police jury plan contained no majority-black districts.

School board members said they were not motivated by bias against black constituents. They could not create two majority-black districts without violating a state law that barred splitting voting precincts, they argued.

Besides, the Justice Department had already signed off on the police jury plan, making federal approval of the school board plan almost certain, the board members thought. Such approval, known as "preclearance," is required under the Voting Rights Act of 1965 for any change in election procedures in areas with a history of discrimination in voting, including most Southern states.

Barry Musgrove, a board member at the time, recalled that the school board asked its redistricting consultant for the best plan.

"He said the police jury plan was already precleared, and it was the fairest plan," Mr. Musgrove said. "That was all I needed to hear."

Two Blacks Elected

The Justice Department, however, instead suggested that two majority-black districts could be created, and therefore the plan did not merit federal approval under the Voting Rights Act.

The precise legal issue before the high court next week involves a complex interplay between two sections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. But the crux of the case comes down to whether the federal government can force the Bossier Parish board to create two majority-black districts.

Adding a further wrinkle is the fact that last spring two black candidates were elected to the Bossier school board from majority-white districts. The school board argues that this shows its plan was not an insurmountable barrier to the election of blacks.

Civil rights groups contend that the elections did not change whether the board had bias in mind when it adopted the plan, and they add that the two black board members may not be the preferred candidates of the black community.

The case, Reno v. Bossier Parish School Board (Case No. 95-1455), lands in the middle of an intense debate on the Supreme Court over the scope of the voting-rights law and the constitutionality of race-based government action.

Last term, a five-justice majority struck down congressional districts in Texas and North Carolina because race was too dominant a consideration in their design.

The court's review of the use of race to design safe electoral districts for minority candidates began in earnest more than three years ago in a case known as Shaw v. Reno.

"Racial gerrymandering ... may Balkanize us into competing racial factions," Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote for the 5-4 majority in the 1993 case, which raised doubts about a bizarrely shaped, majority-black congressional district in North Carolina. "It threatens to carry us further from the goal of a political system in which race no longer matters."

Since that time, the court's conservative majority has continued to chip away at the reach of the Voting Rights Act.

Louisiana has an inglorious history when it comes to the enfranchisement of its black citizens. Its 1898 constitution established education and property requirements for voting, with a grandfather clause that benefited whites over blacks. When those tools were struck down, Louisiana and other Southern states turned to literacy tests and all-white primaries to keep blacks off the voter rolls.

The Voting Rights Act was the federal government's effort to end the history of electoral discrimination. Initially aimed at poll taxes, literacy tests, and other devices that disenfranchised blacks, the law more recently has been used to combat the "dilution" of minority votes. With that focus, federal officials have taken on some at-large voting systems or district lines that tend to disperse minorities' voting power.

Redistricting Fight

B-52 bomber jets from nearby Barksdale Air Force Base roar over Mr. Price's home on the south side of Bossier City, the parish's largest community. Inside, Mr. Price and other members of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People recall their unsuccessful efforts to be included in the school board's redistricting efforts.

In the spring of 1992, the school board did not respond to letters from Mr. Price asking for two majority-black districts.

"It was as if we never existed," said Odis Easter, a printer and a former president of the NAACP chapter.

As the white board members worked on the plan, Mr. Price got in touch with the NAACP's national office in Baltimore for help in drawing a district map that included two black districts. The parish's black population is clustered in two areas: the rural northern tip and a section of Bossier City where Mr. Price lives.

"We didn't find out until later that [the school board] had been working to avoid black-majority districts," Mr. Price said. For example, one school board member worked closely with the police jury on its redistricting plan. And board members disregarded the fact that precinct lines could be altered to accommodate two black districts and state law, Mr. Price said.

In the midst of the redistricting fight, the school board appointed a black resident to a vacancy on the board. But that member was unseated by a white candidate in an election six months later.

Other black candidates who had run for the board up to that point had also been defeated. That got the notice of the Justice Department, which scrutinized the school board redistricting plan more closely than when the police jury presented the same plan a year earlier.

Federal Objections

In August 1993, the Justice Department formally objected to the school board's plan, saying it appeared to be motivated by racial bias.

The board's map "would appear to provide no opportunity for black voters to elect a candidate of their choice to the school board," the department wrote.

The Justice Department objects to scores of voting changes each year. Most of the time, the state or local government alters the challenged plan or procedure.

But the law allows officials to challenge the department in federal court in Washington.

The Bossier Parish school board decided to do just that.

"There are just some things you have to take a stand on," Superintendent Jane Smith said.

James J. Thornton, one of the school board's lawyers, said the Justice Department lacked proper grounds for denying the redistricting because the plan did not leave blacks worse off than before.

Mr. Thornton said the department threw all its legal might into the case once it was challenged by the school board. The department sent teams of lawyers to scour district records and even turned up the heat in Bossier Parish's dormant school desegregation case.

The department's attitude seemed to be that "any parish in northwestern Louisiana had to be a cesspool of racial bigotry," Mr. Thornton said.

"I knew that there was not one ounce of bigotry that went into that decision," Mr. Musgrove, the former board member, said.

In November of last year, a panel of the U.S. District Court in Washington sided with the school board on a 2-1 vote.

Legitimate Reasons

The majority said it was satisfied that two of the reasons offered by the board in drawing the electoral boundaries were legitimate and nondiscriminatory: The police jury plan was attractive because it had been precleared by the Justice Department, and the plan would be easier to implement because no precinct lines would change.

After the Justice Department and Mr. Price appealed, the Supreme Court last spring accepted the case, which will be argued Dec. 9. The court will decide the scope of the evidence the Justice Department may consider as it reviews voting changes in the areas singled out for special scrutiny by the Voting Rights Act.

While the case has worked its way through the courts, two black candidates won board seats in April. One was elected from a 45 percent black district in the northern part of the parish, the other from a 27 percent black district in Bossier City.

Julian Darby, the black board member from Bossier City, has two brothers who have also won elections in the parish. One claimed a seat on the parish police jury and another on the Bossier City Council.

Mr. Darby said he does not view school board business in racial terms.

"I'm here to represent my district and all of Bossier Parish and its children," he said. "There are racial problems here. But things are changing, and we are progressing."

Vol. 16, Issue 14

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