WASHINGTON -- Clamping down harder on the use of race as the main factor in drawing up voting districts, the Supreme Court voted 5-4 yesterday to strike down the minority-controlled districts of four members of Congress.
For the third time in four years, the court spoke bluntly against race-based districting -- a widely used step to assure minority voters of control and to help elect minority candidates.
This time, the court nullified two districts in Texas and one in North Carolina represented by blacks, and one in Texas with a majority of Hispanic-American voters. In each case, the district lines had been dictated mainly by voters' race, the court said.
Laughlin McDonald, a voting rights specialist for the American Civil Liberties Union, said "the inevitable consequence of the court's action will be to produce a Congress that is increasingly white at a time that the nation is becoming increasingly diverse."
But challengers to race-based districting praised the rulings. Abigail Thernstrom of the conservative Institute for Justice called them "a victory for those who favor a colorblind society."
None of the four districts, the court majority said, was necessary to cure past racial bias or to protect minorities under federal voting rights laws. Even those drawn to create safe districts for certain politicians were shaped along racial lines, the court added.
The four districts are oddly shaped, "among the most bizarre in the nation," Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said in the main ruling.
Detailed racial data from the census, she said, dictated where the lines were drawn.
O'Connor made clear, however, that minority-dominated districts do not violate the Constitution so long as race was not the decisive factor used to draw their borders.
A second North Carolina congressional district, also represented a black member, was left intact because, the court said, no one involved in the case had had the right to challenge it.
The rulings came a year after the court nullified the district of a black Georgia Democrat, Rep. Cynthia A. McKinney, who is seeking re-election this year in a newly drawn district with a majority of white voters.
Race played a vital role in shaping several congressional and legislative districts in Maryland in redistricting after the 1990 census. But political observers in the state said they doubted the court's decisions yesterday would stir up new challenges to Maryland's political maps, which have been upheld in court. The rulings, however, could be a factor when districts are redrawn in five years.
The court issued two decisions yesterday, each producing separate opinions. The majority said it hoped the rulings would "clarify the states' responsibilities" when they draw new districts and consider race.
At the same time, the majority may have spawned some confusion: The main opinion spoke only for three justices, and two of those three also wrote separate opinions to explain themselves. Two other justices provided the votes for a majority but said they wanted to go further and ban race altogether in districting.
In a curious development, O'Connor wrote both the main opinion and one for herself alone, indicating that she favored giving legislatures more leeway to create minority-dominated districts.
Justice David H. Souter, a dissenter, said the opinions did not make the law dealing with racial gerrymandering "appreciably clearer or more manageable" than prior decisions had.
With O'Connor staking out what appeared to be a more moderate position, and with four clear-cut dissents, the rulings hinted that some minority-dominated districts could survive a challenge. The court may soon act on challenges to such districts in Georgia and Louisiana.
The closeness of the vote also made it appear that a single change in the court's membership might make a difference. The next likely departure is expected to be Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who was in the majority.
The majority declined to reconsider any of the rulings since it began an assault on "racial gerrymandering" in 1993.
Dissenting Justice John Paul Stevens wrote: "The court's aggressive supervision of state action designed to accommodate the political concerns of historically disadvantaged minority groups is seriously misguided."
A majority appeared to go beyond prior decisions in one major way: Not only is race-based districting unconstitutional when race is used for its own sake; it also is invalid when used as "a proxy," such as to protect lawmakers who depend on minority voter support.
Protecting incumbents, the court said in the main opinion, is a valid goal in redistricting -- but not when voters' race determines who will be included in a district.
The court also said that legislatures risk constitutional trouble when the main census tool they use in redistricting is the highly detailed, almost block-by-block data now available to identify where minority voters live.
The majority behind those conclusions centered on O'Connor, Rehnquist and Justice Anthony M. Kennedy. The outcomes, but not their reasoning, picked up the votes of Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia, who wanted to go further to condemn race-based districts.
The dissenters, in both cases, were Souter, Stevens and Justices Stephen B. Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
The districts of three black House Democrats -- Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee of Houston, Eddie Bernice Johnson of Dallas and Melvin L. Watt of Charlotte, N.C. -- were struck down. Also nullified was the Texas district of Rep. Gene Green of Houston, a Democrat who is not Hispanic but whose district is more than 60 per- cent Hispanic-American and was created expressly to give that group control.
The North Carolina district of Rep. Eva M. Clayton, a black Democrat, also had been challenged. But the justices said none of the challengers lived in that district, so they lacked a basis for suing.
Maryland officials approaching the next redistricting will face competing pressures, said Allan J. Lichtman, a history professor at American University who advised the state's five-member redistricting commission in 1991.
"There's going to be pressure from minorities not to disregard the Voting Rights Act," Lichtman said. "But the court is saying you can't go too far in complying with the act. You have some real dilemmas for state government."
In 1991, the General Assembly created a new 4th Congressional District in Prince George's County and a portion of Montgomery County, with a majority-black population. Legislative leaders have acknowledged that race was a key factor in its creation.
But the 4th District is justifiable, observers argued at the time, because it is largely confined to Prince George's. Voters have twice elected Albert R. Wynn, giving the state two black House members, out of a total of eight.
Joyce Lyons Terhes, Republican state chairwoman, said it will be harder for Maryland to use race when redistricting comes up after the next census in 2000.
"I think the governor's office will have to be more cautious," she said.
Pub Date: 6/14/96