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News Briefs II

Supreme Court Accepts Georgia Redistricting Case

The Washington Post

The evolving issue of voting rights entered a new round Monday when the Supreme Court took up a Georgia case that could determine in real, rather than theoretical, terms when states can use race to redraw their voting districts.

At issue are the districts that civil rights activists credit for doubling the number of black representatives in Congress during the last six years, but that opponents claim unconstitutionally classify people by skin color and discriminate against white voters.

The question in the Georgia case is whether the three majority-black districts, adopted by the state legislature in 1992, should have been cut to only one. In an earlier case, the Supreme Court ruled that one of those districts was unconstitutional because race was used as a predominant factor to draft its boundaries. When a lower court subsequently redrew the state's map to take account of the Supreme Court's ruling, it eliminated a second black-majority district in Georgia.

This time, as the Supreme Court takes up the issue, it is looking not at whether Georgia went too far in creating majority black districts, but whether it hasn't gone far enough to ensure that blacks have a chance to elect candidates of their choice.

The latest dispute comes against a backdrop of high court decisions that have criticized voting districts drawn along racial lines. Since 1993, the justices have yet to uphold a single district as constitutional after a full airing of the case.

Main Software System at IRS Is a Lesson in Ancient History

Los Angeles Times

The Internal Revenue Service's main software system for storing and analyzing taxpayer data, the masterfile, dates back 30 years. The software is written in machine assembly code, an obsolete computer language that apprentice programmers are no longer taught.

As Congress passes new tax laws each year, that massive body of software must be constantly revised, and programmers who can do the revisions are hard to find. Arthur Gross, the new director of the IRS for its computer modernization efforts, says the agency is retraining programmers who know Cobol, a somewhat newer computer language, to do the revisions.

Much like the nine other service centers of the IRS, the Cincinnati-area center has a lot of computer hardware that could be displayed in a museum. The center's check-processing machinery, for example, was built by Burroughs Corp., a Detroit-based computer manufacturer that disappeared 10 years ago in a merger with Sperry Rand.

"It is an outdated system that breaks down frequently," said John Ressler, director of the Cincinnati center. "When it breaks down, our processes stop."

Only a few steps away, Ressler has equipment that shows what new technology could do. It is the IRS' "Telefile" system, which allows taxpayers with the simplest return - the 1040EZ - to file by telephone.