The U.S. Supreme Court will use the redistricting case of a Louisiana school board to decide an important issue under the Voting Rights Act of 1965: whether voting districts that are drawn with a discriminatory purpose can be rejected even if they don’t leave minority voters worse off than before.
For the high court, it will be the second time it has reviewed the redistricting of the Bossier Parish school board, which at the time the new voting lines were drawn in 1992 had never had an elected black member. Voters have since elected three African-Americans to the board.
The 19,000-student school district in northwestern Louisiana is covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which means the Department of Justice or a federal court must approve any changes in voting procedures, including redistricting plans.
Section 5 covers nine Southern states and parts of several others with a history of discriminatory voting practices. The Justice Department sought to use its “preclearance” procedure to get the district to create two majority-black voting districts for its 12-member school board.
The board resisted, arguing that it used the same redistricting plan that had already been precleared by the Justice Department for the parish’s main governing body, known as the policy jury. The board also maintained that the plan could not have had a retrogressive effect on black voters, or left them worse off, because there had never been any black board members.
The board’s plan won approval in 1995 from a special three-judge U.S. District Court in Washington.
In 1997, however, the Supreme Court used the Bossier Parish case to issue a ruling on what evidence the Justice Department and the federal courts may weigh in considering whether to approve redistricting plans in jurisdictions covered by Section 5.
The court ruled 7-2 in Reno v. Bossier Parish School Board that the department cannot deny approval of voting changes in jurisdictions covered by Section 5 of the act on the basis of whether the change violates Section 2, which applies nationwide and bars any practice that would dilute minority voting strength.
Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, writing for the majority in the 1997 ruling, said the two sections of the voting-rights law were designed to “combat different evils and, accordingly, to impose different duties upon the states.”
The high court said it was not clear whether the federal district court had properly considered whether the Bossier school board acted with any discriminatory intent when it adopted its 1992 plan. It sent the case back to the district court.
The district court again approved the school board’s plan, saying the board had nondiscriminatory reasons for adopting it. The Justice Department, joined by the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, again appealed to the high court.
“The record amply supports the conclusion that the board adopted the police-jury [redistricting] plan in order to prevent any advance in the political position of blacks,” the department’s appeal states.
The department urged the high court to resolve the issue of whether a redistricting plan in a jurisdiction covered by Section 5 can be denied if the plan was enacted with a discriminatory purpose despite not leaving minorities worse off than before.
On Jan. 22, the justices accepted the appeal in Reno v. Bossier Parish School Board (Case No. 98-405).
In unsuccessfully urging the court to reject the appeal, the Bossier school board noted that under the disputed voting lines with no majority-black districts, three African-Americans have been elected to the board, including one from a district that was only 21 percent black.
“As the minority population of Bossier Parish is already represented by three minority members on the school board, it would be nonsensical to require” two majority-black voting districts, the board argued, adding that redistricting would make it harder for a third black candidate to win election.
The case will be argued in April, and a decision is likely by early summer.
In separate action last week, the Supreme Court rejected the use of statistical-sampling methods in the 2000 U.S Census for the purpose of apportioning representation in the U.S. House.
However, it said in its 5-4 ruling in Department of Commerce v. U.S. House of Representatives (No. 98-404), the federal Census Act of 1976 at least permits and may require the use of such sampling--as opposed to a traditional head count--for other purposes.
Census figures are used to allocate a broad array of federal funds to the states, including the distribution of Title I compensatory education monies.
A version of this article appeared in the February 03, 1999 edition of Education Week as High Court To Review School Board Redistricting Case