WASHINGTON -- In a decision that could limit states' and courts' power to create new election districts controlled by black or other minority voters, the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 yesterday that federal law imposes no duty to carve out as many of those districts as can be.
For the second year in a row, the court finished its term with a broad ruling seeming to narrow the use of "racial gerrymandering" in drawing up new districting plans.
This time, the court ruled that it is not a violation of federal voting rights law for officials to stop short of fashioning the maximum number of minority-dominated districts that statistics would allow when they engage in redistricting.
The court did not say that officials would violate the law, or the Constitution, if they decided to create the maximum number of such districts, even if that is not required under federal law.
But the court's main opinion implied that reaching for the maximum could raise constitutional problems, and one justice who voted with the majority said more clearly that officials risk violating the Constitution if they rely too heavily upon race in deciding how to carve up a state or a county into new districts.
The ruling appeared to be an echo of a highly controversial one the justices issued last June, saying that "racial gerrymandered" congressional districts may be unconstitutional, at least when they result in the creation of oddly shaped districts that pack in minority voters to give them political control.
Last year's ruling has raised threats to congressional districts that were fashioned expressly to provide a greater chance for blacks to elect one of their own to the House. The 1993 ruling has been applied by a lower court to strike down a new black-majority district in Louisiana, and is being applied now in otherredistricting cases in North Carolina, Georgia and Texas.
A new black-dominated district in Maryland, however, has withstood a challenge in court.
Yesterday's ruling did not involve congressional districts, but the election districts fashioned in Florida in 1992 for state legislative districts in Dade County -- the populous county that surrounds Miami.
A federal court, relying on federal voting rights law's guarantee of equal political roles for minorities, struck down both the lower- and upper-house plans for Dade County legislators, because each provided fewer seats for Hispanics or blacks than could have been drawn up.
There are enough Hispanics or blacks concentrated in areas of the county that additional districts could be fashioned with majorities of either Hispanics or blacks, the lower court ruled.
Overturning that result, the Supreme Court said the lower court was wrong in concluding that federal law requires "maximizing" the number of minority-dominated districts. If a minority gets enough seats to roughly parallel its share of population, that could satisfy federal law, the justices declared in an opinion written by Justice David H. Souter.
Justice Souter warned that there is no binding requirement that a minority be given such a roughly equal share of new districts. Making that a rule, he said, could keep political focus on racial issues and postpone the time when blacks and other minorities work for political influence and power in districts where they are a numerical minority.
In a second voting-rights decision yesterday, the court ruled 5-4 that federal law does not permit challenges by minorities to the number of seats in an official governing body on a theory that minorities could gain by a change in its size.
Allowing several Georgia counties to keep their one-commissioner style of county government, the court majority barred blacks from pursuing their claim that they have been shut out of county politics but could gain political strength if the commission were split up into five one-seat districts.
Also yesterday, in a major victory for death row inmates, the court ruled 5-4 that an inmate seeking to get into federal court to raise a constitutional claim has a right to a court-appointed lawyer to prepare that challenge, and a right to have execution put off until that lawyer has time to do so.
The ruling came in the case of an Arlington, Texas, man who was sentenced to die for killing a woman he met at a bar. Having trouble finding a lawyer to take his case to federal court, the inmate, Frank B. McFarland, asked that his execution be delayed until the court could name a lawyer. A federal judge refused, saying McFarland would first have to file his legal challenge before any action could be taken about a lawyer.
Michael Millemann, a University of Maryland law professor who took part in the Supreme Court appeal on that case, said the ruling appears likely to slow the pace of federal courts as they act on state death-penalty cases. Federal judges with a death row inmate's plea in hand, Mr. Millemann said, often move rapidly to dispose of those cases even if the individual has no lawyer.
In another death penalty ruling yesterday, the court rejected a broad constitutional challenge to California's death penalty law, saying the law gives juries pondering a death penalty sufficient guidance about their power to impose that sentence.