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Double-Edged Districts

THE US Supreme Court's 5-to-4 decision to allow five white voters from North Carolina to challenge the constitutionality of a black-majority congressional district could inject an unsettling factor into efforts to ensure minority representation in Congress and state legislatures.

At issue is North Carolina's 12th District, one of two such districts in the state drawn after the 1990 Census to conform to the Voting Rights Act. The districts were drawn under US Justice Department supervision. The effort led to the election last year of the first black House members from the state in nearly a century; 22 percent of the state's population is black. Similar efforts led to 26 new minority districts nationwide.

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The five voters argued that the district was drawn in a way that denies them equal protection under the law.

Writing for the majority, Justice O'Connor held that while states have a strong interest in complying with constitutional antidiscrimination laws, the Voting Rights Act does not protect redistricting plans from challenge or give states "carte blanche to engage in racial gerrymandering."

One view of the June 28 ruling is that only districts egregiously gerrymandered to give minorities a majority - as North Carolina's 12th was - would be challenged. It is possible to draw minority-majority districts in less bizarre ways if lawmakers are willing to carve up incumbents' holdings. If the high court's ruling ultimately forces that, the result could be more fresh faces of all types.

Yet without a clearer signal from the court, less obviously gerrymandered districts could be threatened.

Justice John Paul Stevens got it right when he noted that the Constitution has no requirement dealing with shapes of districts, and since it has been permissible to draw districts to solidify the voting strengths of ethnic groups or political parties, it certainly is valid to do so for a group "whose history...gave birth to the Equal Protection Clause."

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