Justices hear case on role of race in N.C. redistricting; Challenge is 3rd from state to reach court since lines were redrawn after 1990


WASHINGTON -- On the eve of the 2000 census, the Supreme Court began yesterday to try to answer a prickly North Carolina question with national implications:

Should race ever be a factor in drawing congressional districts?

In a flurry of pointed questions, several justices seemed to suggest that the court would frown on states that made race of voters a "predominant" factor in creating district boundaries. But the justices also spoke of hypothetical cases in which race could be a very natural and perhaps secondary consideration.

The debate came as the court weighed a case questioning the constitutionality of North Carolina's 12th Congressional District. This was the third time the Supreme Court has heard arguments from lawyers challenging and defending North Carolina districts created after the 1990 census.

But now, with a new census approaching, lawmakers across the nation plan to redraw their districts for electing members to Congress and state legislatures. Many opponents and fans of the 12th District hope the court will use the North Carolina case to advise on how race should or could figure in creating these districts that represent the public.

"We hope [the court] will give some other guiding principles about how to do this," said Democratic Rep. Melvin Watt, who was elected in 1992 to the newly created 12th District. "They have been remiss thus far. You have standards that nobody can understand."

Walter Dellinger, attorney for the state, emerged from the court saying he was "very pleased" after hearing the justices' questions.

"I think the court showed it understands very well the importance of this case to North Carolina and that they need not have redistricting plans struck down when race is a small factor," he said.

Dellinger insisted to the court that party politics, not race, was the dominant factor in the plan's design. He said that when state lawmakers redrew the boundaries, their idea was to ensure they had 12 equally populated districts and that two incumbent members of Congress would not land in the same district and have to compete with each other.

Robinson Everett, lawyer for voters challenging the district, insisted that concentrating minorities into the district was an underlying motive in many of the map-drawers' decisions.

"There was a recital of partisan fairness," Everett said. "But there was a purpose of electing an African-American."

But justices repeatedly questioned whether Everett could prove race's dominance beyond a shadow of a doubt, and they asked about a state legislative statistician who testified that legislators put political concerns about protecting incumbents over racial considerations.

Justices pointed out that in North Carolina, black Democratic voters were more likely to vote Democratic, while as many as one-third of white Democrats might vote Republican in a federal election.

If map-drawers were trying to make a Democratic-leaning district and used election results to choose the precincts, they asked, couldn't it be natural they would include more blacks?

As Everett left the Supreme Court a little later, he said he wasn't downbeat but felt tired.

"I'm numb," he said. "The thing that is a little depressing is that, whatever happens, we'll be litigating this for some time to come."

Pub Date: 1/21/99

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