La. School Board Redistricting Case Reaches High Court for Second Time

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Nine years after the last U.S. Census, and seven years after it adopted new voting districts, the Bossier Parish, La., school board's redistricting plan is still under federal scrutiny.

The U.S. Supreme Court last week heard oral arguments about the 19,000-student district's 1992 redistricting plan for the second time. When the district lines were adopted, the northwestern Louisiana parish had never had an elected black school board member. Since then, three African-Americans have been elected to the 12-member board.

Still at issue, however, is whether the district adopted the 1992 plan with a discriminatory purpose. Louisiana is covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which means any change in voting practices, such as a redistricting plan, must be approved by the Department of Justice or a federal district court in Washington. Section 5 covers nine Southern states and parts of several others with a history of discriminatory voting practices.

If the high court determines that the Bossier board acted in a discriminatory way, the court would then use the case to decide an important legal question under the Voting Rights Act: whether voting districts drawn with a discriminatory purpose can be rejected even if they don't leave minority voters worse off than before.

The answer to that question could affect all school districts and other jurisdictions subject to Section 5 of the voting-rights law.

In 1993, the Justice Department rejected Bossier Parish's redistricting plan and sought to require the school board to create two majority-black voting districts. The school board resisted, noting that it had adopted the same voting lines devised by the parish's main governing commission.

The board argued that the plan didn't meet the legal standard for being disapproved under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act because it wasn't retrogressive. In other words, it didn't leave black voters worse off, because there had never been a majority-black district or a black school board member.

In 1997, the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in Reno v. Bossier Parish School Board that the Justice Department cannot deny approval of voting changes for jurisdictions covered by Section 5 of the act on the basis of whether the change violates Section 2, a broader section of the law that applies nationwide and bars any practice that dilutes minority voting strength.

The high court sent the Bossier case back to a lower federal court to determine whether the school board had acted with a discriminatory purpose in adopting its preferred plan.

The federal district court here, which had approved the board's plan the first time, gave its approval again, saying the board had legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for adopting the plan. Those reasons included that the same voting lines had been approved by the Justice Department when the parish's main governing body submitted them.

Past History?

The Justice Department and the Bossier Parish chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People asked the Supreme Court to review the case once more.

"The intent of the Bossier Parish school board was to hold the line against further participation by black people in the affairs of the school board," Paul R.Q. Wilson, an assistant U.S. solicitor general, told the justices during the April 26 oral arguments in Reno v. Bossier Parish School Board (Case No. 98-405).

Michael A. Carvin, the lawyer for the school board, told the justices that the case was essentially moot because the board has no more elections planned under the 1992 districting plan.

"This is all the past," he said.

He also urged the court to consider that three African-Americans in Bossier Parish have been elected from majority-white districts.

The justices gave no clear indications of how they might decide the case.

Vol. 18, Issue 34, Page 23

Published in Print: May 5, 1999, as La. School Board Redistricting Case Reaches High Court for Second Time
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