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A Better Approach to Boosting Minority Representation?

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IN the last day of its 1993 term a closely-divided United States Supreme Court raised the issue of reverse discrimination in a voting-rights case. The high court objected to the configuration of two North Carolina congressional districts that clearly had been drawn to assure the election of black candidates in a state where 22 percent of the current population is black, but which had not elected a black to its 12-member congressional delegation since Reconstruction. Writing for the majority in a 5-to-4 d ecision, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, a Reagan appointee, found herself at odds with Justice David Souter, a Bush appointee who issued one of the four dissents.

Justice O'Connor used such terms as "bizarre" and "political apartheid" to describe the two districts, one of which was 160 miles long and at times only the width of the corridor of the interstate highway that snaked through it from Charlotte to Durham. The majority found that the district may have violated the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution, as the plaintiffs contended, and so was open to challenge. Although race-conscious redistricting plans are not impermissible p er se, this case was clearly one of "racial gerrymandering." Voters were classified solely on the basis of race, ignoring other relevant factors like geographical and political boundaries. Justice O'Connor wrote that such racial classifications are "by their very nature odious to a free people whose institutions are founded upon the doctrine of equality."

Since departing Justice Byron White was one of the dissenters, the court apparently will continue to have a majority against the so-called racial gerrymander. This could jeopardize the current districting plans of a number of states, notably New York, California, Texas, Illinois, Florida, Georgia, and Louisiana.

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