His opinion in the case (Miller vs. Johnson, 94-631), was signed by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.
Experts in voting rights law said that the ruling will surely spur more lawsuits and that it calls into question the congressional seats held by most black and Latino representatives.
"I would say a majority of them are in danger," said American University law professor Jamin Raskin. The least vulnerable districts, however, are those in regions where black voters are concentrated in a specific geographic area, such as in Atlanta, New Orleans, Chicago, Los Angeles or other major cities, he said.
The ruling specifically struck down a predominantly black congressional district in Georgia that stretches from Savannah to Atlanta and is served by Democratic Rep. Cynthia McKinney, one of three African American lawmakers from that state. Now Georgia lawmakers will have to redraw the district's boundaries, putting McKinney's seat in jeopardy.
Civil rights lawyers who have fought for greater representation for minorities called the ruling "one of the most disturbing opinions in recent memory."
"The Supreme Court seems determined to dismantle the structure of civil rights in this country," said Laughlin McDonald, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Voting Rights Project in Atlanta. "The result could be a return to the days of all-white government."
But Assistant Atty. Gen. Deval Patrick, the Clinton Administration's civil rights chief, sounded a more upbeat note: "It is a setback, but it is not the end of the road. We will continue to defend the plans in Louisiana and elsewhere."
He noted two encouraging signs. Justice O'Connor attached a brief concurring opinion saying that the court was attacking only the "extreme instances of gerrymandering."
Among the justices, O'Connor is noted for sitting on the fence. Often she writes opinions that, as Raskin said, "put a foot in both camps." As usual, lower-court judges will have to puzzle out what she meant by "extreme."
Patrick also said that he "takes comfort" from the court's one-line order Thursday upholding California's boundaries for its 52 members of Congress.
Last year, a three-judge panel said that the 1992 redistricting plan followed "traditional principles" and did not show evidence of "racial gerrymandering." Without writing an opinion, the court upheld that conclusion in DeWitt vs. Wilson, 94-275.
California Democratic Party spokesman Bob Mulholland said the court's decision to accept California's plan while rejecting Georgia's reflects the fact that California achieved greater minority opportunities without tortuous abuse of district lines.
"The Georgia case made it quite obvious that the court will not stand for those districts," Mulholland said. "Californians, whether Republicans or Democrats, have always drawn lines that withstood court scrutiny."
Christine Berman, a spokeswoman for Gov. Pete Wilson, said in Sacramento that the governor was "pleased by the Supreme Court's decision."
Alan Heslop of Claremont McKenna College, one of the state's leading demographics experts, said the court's decision affirms the fact that while California avoided "the extraordinary contortions that raised gerrymander charges in other states, they do indeed concentrate minority registrations and ensure greater electoral opportunities."
But the high court summary ruling will not foreclose further lawsuits in California that challenge districts established for county supervisors or school board members.
Longtime critics of racial gerrymandering hailed the Georgia ruling as a landmark.
"The court took an important step toward treating American voters not as black or white but simply as Americans," said Abigail Thernstrom, a voting-rights expert at Boston University. "No longer can voters be herded into separate districts solely on the basis of skin color."
While the ruling dealt with the use of race in congressional districts, it set constitutional standards that would also apply to districts created especially to elect Latinos to state and local offices, as well as to Congress.
In a strong dissent, which she read from the bench, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg accused the majority of ignoring the history of "rank discrimination against African Americans." She noted that "legislative districting is a highly political business," with many competing interests, that should be left to politicians.
She concluded by saying that the ruling in the Georgia case is not the last word on the issue. A few hours later, her prediction proved accurate as the justices announced that they would hear appeals this fall on the fate of black-majority districts in North Carolina and Texas.
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Final Flurry of Rulings
Wrapping up its current term, the Supreme Court on Thursday: