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Supreme Court Challenges Redistricting Based on Race

By Timothy M. Phelps
Newsday

WASHINGTON

Even as blacks and Latinos are becoming a major power in Congress, a Supreme Court decision this summer has thrown into question the redistricting process that put many of them into office.

The court upheld white Democrats' challenge to a bizarrely shaped North Carolina district whose black majority sent a black to the House of Representatives in 1992 -- one of two elected from the state for the first time in history. Depending on how the court's confusing decision is read, however, anywhere from a handful to several dozen of the 57 seats held by blacks and Latinos could be challenged. Many more state legislative and local districts also could be in jeopardy.

The Supreme Court, divided 5-4, even left in doubt the constitutionality of a key section of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the agent of most of the considerable change in the complexion of American politicians in recent years. And it extended its challenge of minority preferences in college admissions and government contracting.

Melvin Watt, the 48-year-old black businessman elected to represent North Carolina's 12th District, says that the court's opinion calling his district lines "political apartheid" is itself racist.

The boa constrictor-like design of the 12th, which is 160 miles long and in some places is no wider than the interstate highway it hugs across the state, has made it the subject of much derision. But Watt, in a recent interview, said it is as cohesive as any congressional district because the majority of his constituents are poor urban dwellers in cities connected by Interstate 85.

Moreover, Watt said, 45 percent of his constituents are white and he could not have been elected, particularly in a crowded primary, without substantial white support.

"This is the most integrated district North Carolina ever had, when you think about it," the congressman said. "Implicit in (the Supreme Court's) opinion is the assumption that white representatives can effectively represent white and black people while black representatives are capable of representing only black constitutuents and that we will disregard in some way the white constituents in our districts," he said.

But Melvin G. Shimm, a law professor at Duke University, said that he and the other plaintiffs, all Democrats, had brought the suit as a matter of principle.

"The most important civil right of all is the right to vote," Shimm said. "This trumps all of the others. Our feeling is that anything that compromises or corrupts the integrity of the process is very vigorously to be opposed."

The plaintiffs did not base their claim on any loss of white voting power. Though the state elected its first two black congressmen in history in 1992, 10 of the 12 House seats are still held by whites, who make up 78 percent of the population. Rather, the plaintiffs said that the segregation of voters into separate districts by race violated their constitutional right to a "color blind" electoral process.

The Supreme Court, in an opinion written by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, overturned lower court decisions upholding the redistricting and ordered further court proceedings on whether the state had any basis for drawing the district other than race.

O'Connor, in one section of her opinion, seemed to be concerned only with districts with bizarre shapes like the 12th, an interpretation that experts say might affect half a dozen congressional districts.

But elsewhere O'Connor explicitly refused to decide whether the intentional creation of so-called majority-minority districts, without other justifications, is constitutional. Legal and political experts said that if the answer is no, many more districts could be jeopardized.

While never explicitly mentioned in the Supreme Court's opinion, partisan politics have been as involved in the drawing of minority districts as race itself.

North Carolina originally planned only one majority-minority district until the Justice Department under then-President Bush intervened, forcing the state to draw a second one and more closely follow the 1990 Census.

The Republican Party has in the past had an admitted strategy of encouraging the formation of such districts nationwide. Some Republican leaders foresaw that concentrating black votes, usually in urban districts, would dilute black voting strength in suburban districts. Since blacks vote overwhelmingly Democratic, that would help elect Republicans -- which is exactly what happened in the 1992 congressional elections in states from Florida to Ohio.

Critics of the ruling note that the Supreme Court has been very reluctant to interfere with states' redistricting decisions in almost any other situation.