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Supreme Court Rules That `Bizarre' Districts May Be Gerrymanders

Decision questions 1965 Voting Rights Act

NORTH Carolina's 12th Congressional District, which snakes along Interstate 85 from Gastonia to Durham, is so narrow at points that a driver in the northbound lane may find himself in a different district from the southbound lane. Created in 1990 to produce a majority of black voters, the district has been said to resemble a Rorschach ink-blot test or a "bug splattered on a windshield."

Now the United States Supreme Court has added its voice to the criticism, ruling that the district is "bizarre" and may be an unconstitutional racial gerrymander. The June 28 5-to-4 ruling throws into doubt the way the Justice Department has been enforcing the 1965 Voting Rights Act, designed to guarantee minorities political representation.

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In 1990, the Justice Department forced North Carolina and other states to redraw their congressional districts to increase minority representation. About two dozen "majority minority" districts were created, sending 13 more blacks and six Hispanics to Congress last year. The Supreme Court's ruling may open the way for legal challenges to at least some of these districts.

"It shakes things up," says Mark Levin of the conservative Landmark Legal Foundation in Washington. "It'll have a big impact on the 2000 redistricting. The [high] court is rejecting race-based solutions in the electoral process in a big way." Plan aimed to help blacks

The June 28 case began when the North Carolina General Assembly submitted a 1990 redistricting plan that had only one "majority minority" district. The Justice Department rejected that map, leading the state to create another largely black district that followed the squiggly course of I-85. This plan cut five counties into three districts and even divided some towns. It did, however, achieve its goal: North Carolina last year elected its first black representatives since Reconstruction - Mel Watt (D) fro m the 12th District and Eva Clayton (D) from the 11th.

But five white voters living in Durham, N.C., challenged the redistricting as a "racial gerrymander." In the past, federal courts have often rejected such claims. In fact, in March, the high court ruled in Voinovich v. Quilter that majority-minority districts are not barred by the Voting Rights Act.

But in this case, Shaw v. Reno, the court held that the new district was so "bizarre" that it "rationally can be viewed only as an effort to segregate the races for purposes of voting, without regard for traditional districting principles and without sufficiently compelling justification."Such "segregation," Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote, "bears an uncomfortable resemblance to political apartheid" because it groups voters "who may have little in common with one another but the color of their skin."

The court did not rule that the North Carolina redistricting violates the 14th Amendment, which says that a state cannot "deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of law." But the justices ruled that a lower court was wrong in dismissing possible 14th Amendment violations out-of-hand. In this case, and others arising from the Voting Rights Act, the justices instructed lower courts to use a strict standard of scrutiny to determine if the redistricting plan is "narrowly tailored to f urther a compelling governmental interest" - and hence falls within the bounds of the Constitution.

Justices Byron White, Harry Blackmun, John Paul Stevens, and David Souter produced separate dissenting opinions. But they made essentially the same points.

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First, they argued that the North Carolina plan should not be struck down because the white plaintiffs have not proved that they were disenfranchised by the redistricting. Said Justice Blackmun, "The conscious use of race in redistricting does not violate the Equal Protection Clause unless the effect of the redistricting plan is to deny a particular group equal access to the political process or to minimize voting strength unduly."

Second, the minority argued that Justice O'Connor was creating an untenable standard by holding that "bizarre" districts may be unconstitutional while more traditional-looking districts created under the Voting Rights Act are not. "The distinction is untenable," Justice White wrote. Justice Stevens stressed that there is no constitutional requirement that districts be compact or contiguous - two factors that O'Connor says were violated by the rambling 12th District. Lawsuits expected

There are sure to be years of litigation to resolve how broad-ranging the impact of Shaw v. Reno will be.

In his dissent, Justice Souter tried to minimize the ruling's effects. "The shape of the district at issue in this case is indeed so bizarre," he wrote, "that few other examples are ever likely to carry the unequivocal implications of impermissible use of race that the court finds here."

But Mr. Levin says the ruling "opens the door" to a host of lawsuits challenging applications of the Voting Rights Act. "What's weird or bizarre is in the eye of the beholder, but now the person who draws the boundaries will have to justify it," he says.

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