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Supreme Court Curtails Reach of Voting Rights Act

By David G. Savage
Los Angeles Times

The Supreme Court, opening its new term Monday, quickly picked up just where it left off in late June by again cutting back on the reach of the Voting Rights Act.

In a brief ruling, the court said states with a large population of blacks and Latinos need not always create a "majority-minority" electoral district to satisfy the law.

Instead, they can set up several districts where minority voters make up at least 25 percent of the total and thereby can influence who gets elected.

The 8-1 decision, in a Tennessee case, is the latest sign that states will no longer be under legal pressure to create electoral districts that elect minorities to Congress, the state legislature, county councils or school boards.

The first round of oral argument began without Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who was home recovering from back surgery. The senior associate justice, John Paul Stevens, took his place. He announced that Rehnquist, 71, expects to return shortly and that he will vote in the cases heard this week after listening to the taped arguments.

As usual on the first Monday in October, the court issued a list of orders dismissing appeals in more than 1,500 cases that had piled up over the summer.

Among those, the court:

-Refused for now to hear a constitutional challenge to the 1994 law that makes it a federal crime to block an abortion clinic. Opponents of the law say it violates their free speech rights and exceeds Congress's power. Monday's action, in American Life League vs. Reno, does not prevent the court from hearing a challenge later.

-Rejected a "pauper's" appeal filed by jailed financier Charles Keating. He claimed the Office of Thrift Supervision made him the "primary scapegoat" for the savings and loan debacle by seeking $387 million in fines and restitution from him. Now in prison in Tucson, Ariz., Keating claimed he could not pay the standard $300 fee to file an appeal in the Supreme Court.

The court's refusal to hear an appeal in the voting-rights case set a legal precedent because the justices issued an order officially upholding the restrictive ruling in the Tennessee case.

After the 1990 census, most states with a large number of minority voters sought to create such districts so as to comply with the law.

They relied on the Voting Rights Act of 1982, which said minorities not only had a right to vote, but a right "to elect representatives of their choice."

In 1986, a liberal majority of the Supreme Court had said that provision obliged states with large blocs of minority voters to draw electoral districts that ensured those voters would be represented in Congress, the state legislature or other elected bodies. That view of the law drove the creation of new minority districts from Florida to California and led to a doubling of the number of black members of Congress.

But in the past two years, the conservative majority of the high court has unraveled that view.

In June, the court on a 5-4 vote said the Constitution does not allow states to use race as a "predominant factor" in drawing electoral boundaries. That decision, in Miller vs. Johnson, put a limit on so-called "racial gerrymandering."

In Monday's brief ruling, the court made clear that the law does not require states to draw majority-black districts.

Monday's decision will likely have an impact in areas where blacks or Latinos do not make up a clear majority, but where they could comprise a majority if boundaries were drawn in a favorable way.

Among the long list of cases in which appeals were dismissed without comment, the court:

-Refused to hear a free-speech challenge to California's "green labeling" law. The 1990 measure defines terms such as "biodegradable" and "recyclable," and advertisers contended the First Amendment does not allow the state to claim a word for its own use. .)

-Refused again to hear a would-be gun owner's claim that the Second Amendment gives her a right to "keep and bear arms." A Maryland woman was turned down when she sought to buy a handgun because state officials said her record showed a conviction for a petty crime. She appealed to the federal courts and insisted the Second Amendment restricted the state and gave her a right to have a gun.

-Let stand a federal court ruling from California that says police do not violate a fleeing suspect's constitutional rights when they set loose a police dog who maims the suspect. If an officer brutally beats a suspect, he could be charged with using excessive force. But the federal courts have refused to recognize claims involving excessive force when police dogs are used.