WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court agreed Friday to clarify how legislative line-drawing must be done to protect the voting rights of minorities, a subject that has sharply divided the court in the past.
States and local governments must redraw boundaries every 10 years to reflect population changes.
The justices will consider whether to reinstate legislative district lines adopted in Georgia. A lower court rejected the boundaries last spring, ruling that state lawmakers wrongly reduced minority voting strength in several Georgia Senate districts.
The case gives the Supreme Court a chance to spell out how officials can redraw districts that previously had dense minority populations, without violating the federal Voting Rights Act.
Expected by July, the decision will apply to governments required by the Voting Rights Act to get their plans cleared by the federal government or a court, including most Southern states.
The Supreme Court already has held that the federal government has limited authority to veto election changes. In 2000, the justices ruled 5-4 that the government cannot reject proposed changes in election systems, even if they are discriminatory, so long as the changes leave minorities no worse off than they were before.
The challenged Georgia redistricting plan, drawn by the Democratic-controlled Legislature, shifted black voters from safe Democratic districts into adjacent districts. It was part of a strategy to oust Republicans.
After losing in the lower court, Georgia lawmakers redrew the Senate boundaries, and elections were held in November in the approved districts.
The elections went badly for Democrats. The state elected its first Republican governor in 130 years. Democrats lost state Senate seats and Republicans took control of the Senate after the election when four Democrats switched parties.
Georgia Atty. Gen. Thurbert E. Baker said Friday that his office would be talking with the state's new governor and lawmakers about a legal strategy.
The Bush administration had urged justices to stay out of the case, which would have left the new map in place.
David Guinn, a constitutional law professor at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, said the case raises an important technical question whether governments under the Voting Rights Act must draw districts with very large minority populations to help minority candidates win.
Carol Swain, a professor of law and political science at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, said Republicans benefit when blacks and Latinos are packed into just a few districts.
This is the second redistricting case arising from the 2000 census to be reviewed by the high court. Justices heard arguments in December in a dispute over a Mississippi congressional plan.
The case is Georgia vs. Ashcroft, 02-182.
Also Friday, the Supreme Court:
Said it would consider whether Iowa can impose higher taxes on racetrack slot machine profits than on the profits of riverboat casinos. The Iowa Supreme Court ruled it was unconstitutional to put higher taxes on companies that operate slot machines at dog and horse tracks. The state will have to give back $100 million in taxes should it lose the appeal. The case is Fitzgerald vs. Racing Association of Central Iowa, 02-695.
Agreed to hear a complicated energy regulation case that asks which costs utility companies can pass on to consumers. The Bush administration had come down on the side of electricity companies and urged the court to hear the appeal filed by Entergy Louisiana Inc.
The case is Entergy Louisiana vs. Louisiana Public Service Commission, 02-299.