Court Limits Justice Action in Voting-Rights Cases

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The U.S. Supreme Court made it more difficult last week for the Department of Justice to prod school boards and other local governments to maximize the number of minority voting districts within their jurisdictions.

Ruling in a case involving a Louisiana school board, the high court limited the evidence the Justice Department and the federal courts may weigh in considering whether to approve redistricting plans in jurisdictions covered by a special section of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Section 5 of the voting-rights law requires federal approval for any change in voting procedures in nine Southern states and parts of other states with a history of discriminatory voting practices.

Local jurisdictions covered by the law have a duty to convince the Justice Department or the U.S. District Court in Washington that any change in voting procedures, such as redistricting, does not have the purpose or effect of leaving minority voters in a worse position than they were before.

Another part of the law, Section 2, applies nationwide and bars any voting practice that would dilute minority voting strength. The Justice Department has for more than a decade taken the view that any voting change that violates Section 2 would not pass muster under Section 5. The department has used its leverage over jurisdictions covered by Section 5 to require them to maximize their number of minority voting districts.

But in a 7-2 ruling on May 12, the Supreme Court ruled that Justice Department approval of voting changes of a jurisdiction covered by Section 5 may not be denied solely because the change violates the standards of Section 2.

"We have consistently understood these sections to combat different evils and, accordingly, to impose very different duties upon the states," Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said in the majority opinion in Reno v. Bossier Parish School Board (Case No. 95-1455). She was joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy, and Clarence Thomas. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer signed on to most of the majority opinion.

Writing in dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens said that "a plan that clearly violates Section 2 is not entitled to preclearance under Section 5."

"There is no legitimate basis for refusing to defer to the attorney general's" interpretation of the two sections, Justice Stevens said. He was joined by Justice David H. Souter.

1992 Redistricting

The case stems from a dispute over a new districting plan for the Bossier Parish, La., school district, where, until last year, voters had never elected an African-American to the school board. ("Court To Weigh Race's Role in Voting Districts," Dec. 4, 1996.)

Black residents make up about one-fifth of the parish's population of 86,000 and about 30 percent of the school system's enrollment of 19,000.

In 1992, following the 1990 U.S. Census, the all-white school board adopted new voting districts that were the same as those adopted by the parish's general governing commission.

The Justice Department had approved the parish's redistricting plan. But when the 12-member school board considered a new plan, the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People pushed for creation of majority-black voting districts. The school board rejected the NAACP's suggested plans and adopted a plan with no majority-black districts.

The Justice Department objected to the plan and told the school board that "black residents are sufficiently numerous and geographically compact so as to constitute a majority in two single-member districts."

Instead of agreeing to the department's request, however, the school board followed a procedure outlined in the voting-rights law and asked the federal district court in Washington for approval of its districting plan.

A special three-judge court ruled in favor of the board in 1995 on a 2-1 vote.

Divergent Reaction

Although the Supreme Court ruled against the Justice Department in the case, it ordered the three-judge court to re-examine the question of whether the Bossier Parish school board acted with a discriminatory purpose when it adopted its redistricting plan.

Justice O'Connor said that while evidence of a Section 2 violation may not automatically require rejection in a Section 5 case, such evidence may have relevance in the Justice Department's or federal court's inquiry.

Brenda Wright of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law said the Bossier board would still have a hard time winning approval for its redistricting plan from the federal district court because "the evidence of racially discriminatory purpose here was fairly strong."

The Lawyers' Committee, a Washington-based civil rights group, helped represent the Bossier Parish NAACP chapter before the Supreme Court.

Ms. Wright said the fact that two black candidates were elected to the Bossier Parish school board last year under the board's redistricting plan was not relevant to the question of whether the board had a discriminatory purpose in mind when it adopted the plan.

However, Michael A. Carvin, who represented the school board before the high court, said the ruling was a serious blow to Justice Department efforts to force local governments to increase the number of minority voting districts.

"It's a significant dimunition of the Justice Department's authority," Mr. Carvin said. "The court made clear that the department cannot continue to do what it had done throughout the 1990 redistricting cycle, which was to require affirmative gerrymandering to benefit minorities."

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