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Court Limits US Say Over Voting Districts

'Serious setback' for voting-rights law

The highest court in the land is continuing a pattern of making small, moderate footprints in the sands of United States legal and social history.

In one of the busiest days of the term so far, the high court yesterday struck a further blow to federal voting laws dating from the 1960s. It narrowed the type of federal appeals death-row inmates can make, and it continued to deal with a host of contentious sex and gender claims - ranging from gay rights to sexual harassment.

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Since Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, civil-rights lawyers have considered Section 5 of the act to be the front lines in the fight against inequality in voting laws. Under Section 5, any of the nine Southern states that historically discriminated against blacks had to "preclear" their attempts to change the makeup of voting districts.

Yesterday the high court dealt a blow to Section 5 by saying that the Justice Department should "preclear" the petitions of voting districts even if they are shown to be biased. In her opinion for the court, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said the Justice Department can file a lawsuit against the local county or state on racial claims.

"This is a very serious setback for voting-rights enforcement," says Frank Parker, a law professor at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va. "The court has been chipping at voting rights for years. This is a very big chip."

The court delivered split decisions on two homosexual-rights cases. In a setback for gay-rights advocates, the court turned back a challenge to the Clinton administration's "don't ask, don't tell" policy on homosexuals in the military. The challenge came from a former US Navy sailor discharged after disclosing he was gay.

The court, without comment, turned down former officer Richard Dirk Selland's argument that the policy is based on prejudice and violates gay service members' free-speech rights. Last October, the court turned down a similar appeal by a former Navy officer.

Yet, in a Wisconsin case, the court upheld a ruling against a woman who refused to let a lesbian be her housemate. The justices, without comment, left intact state court rulings that said Ann Hacklander-Ready violated Madison's fair-housing ordinance by refusing to rent to someone because of sexual orientation.

Ms. Hacklander-Ready's appeal challenged the government's power "to dictate how one may choose with whom to associate as living companions in the anticipated privacy of their own homes."

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In the area of sexual harassment, the court gave no new clear direction. For the second time in seven months, it passed up a chance to decide whether educators violate a federal law when they fail to stop students from sexually harassing other students. A decision would have carried huge importance for schools nationwide.

In other rulings, the court:

*Decided employers cannot fire workers and contract out their jobs to another company in an effort to reduce health and other benefits. The unanimous decision supports a claim by former cargo-handlers at a Los Angeles rail yard that their jobs were moved to another company in a conspiracy to reduce benefits.

*Upheld a Florida killer's death sentence even though it was based on factors later ruled to be unconstitutional. The decision continues a court trend in recent years of curbing federal judges' power to review state court convictions.

*Rejected an appeal by Alaska's Republican Party challenging the state's open-primaries law that allows voters, regardless of affiliation, to cast a ballot for any candidate.

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