Divided High Court Upholds Board's Redistricting Plan
The federal government may not withhold approval of voting changes for state and local elections, even for those adopted with a discriminatory purpose, unless the changes would leave minorities in a worse electoral position than before, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last week.
The 5-4 ruling involved a redistricting plan adopted by the Bossier Parish, La., school board in 1992. At the time, no African-American had ever been elected to the 12-member board, even though blacks composed 20 percent of the parish's population. The Department of Justice had directed the board to revise its plan by creating two majority-black electoral districts, but it refused.
In its Jan. 24 ruling in Reno v. Bossier Parish School Board (Case No. 98-405), the Supreme Court used the case to interpret an important section of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Under Section 5 of the statute, states and local jurisdictions throughout the South and in some other areas of the country with a history of racial discrimination in voting must submit any change in voting plans or procedures to the federal government for approval.
The approval, known as "preclearance," can come from either the Justice Department or the U.S. District Court in Washington. Section 2 of the law, which applies nationwide, allows plaintiffs to bring private lawsuits alleging that a voting change or procedure dilutes minority voting strength.
In its ruling last week, the high court's majority said the Section 5 preclearance procedure is limited to determining whether a voting change leaves minorities worse off than they were before and cannot be used to force the adoption of a "hypothetical, undiluted" redistricting plan.
"Section 5 prevents nothing but backsliding, and preclearance under Section 5 affirms nothing but the absence of backsliding," Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the majority.
Allowing the Justice Department to use the preclearance procedure to force other changes on a covered jurisdiction would "exacerbate the substantial federalism costs that the preclearance procedure already exacts," Justice Scalia said. He was joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Anthony M. Kennedy, and Clarence Thomas.
Acting With 'Intent'
Justice Scalia reached no conclusions about whether the Bossier Parish school board had discrimination in mind in 1992 when it adopted a redistricting plan with no majority-black districts. Under the majority's interpretation, Bossier Parish could under no circumstances be denied preclearance for a redistricting plan, because it had never elected a black board member; thus, African-Americans could not be worse off in terms of electing members of their own race.
But Justice David H. Souter, writing for the dissenting justices, cited evidence that he said showed the school board had "acted with intent to dilute the black vote, just as it acted with that same intent through decades of resistance to a judicial desegregation order."
Under the majority's interpretation, "executive and judicial officers of the United States will be forced to preclear illegal and unconstitutional voting schemes patently intended to perpetuate discrimination," said Justice Souter, who was joined by Justices John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Stephen G. Breyer.
The Bossier case began when the school board of the 19,000-student district in northwest Louisiana adopted the same voting districts used for the general governing body of the parish. The board rebuffed a suggestion by George Price, the president of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, to create two majority-black districts.
The Justice Department refused to approve the board's redistricting plan, backing Mr. Price's recommendation instead. The board turned to the federal district court in Washington, which approved the plan by saying board members had legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for adopting it.
The Bossier Parish case has been nettlesome for the high court. In 1997, it used the case to rule that the Justice Department could not use the broad legal standards of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act to decide whether to preclear voting changes.
But arguments were held twice more before the high court on the related question of whether evidence of discriminatory purpose should play any role in the preclearance decision when there was no "retrogression" of minority voting strength. The majority last week answered no.
Michael A. Carvin, a lawyer who represented Bossier Parish before the high court, said the ruling was "a real victory for federalism because it prevents school boards and other local jurisdictions from being coerced by the Justice Department into racially gerrymandering these black-majority voting districts."
Kenneth Kruithof, the acting superintendent of the Bossier Parish district, noted that even under the board's preferred redistricting plan, three African-Americans have been elected to the board from majority-white districts since 1995.
"We're pleased that our voters have voted people in regardless of color," he said.
Patricia A. Brannan, the lawyer representing Mr. Price, said the ruling was disappointing, but she added that redistricting plans like Bossier Parish's could still be challenged under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.
"This plan got precleared by the skin of its teeth," she said. "For school boards, the lesson is you have to be pretty careful. The facts here were extremely troublesome to the court."
Vol. 19, Issue 21, Pages 26, 28Published in Print: February 2, 2000, as Divided High Court Upholds Board's Redistricting Plan