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HIGH COURT'S TERM ENDS

Shift of Black Voters in Ga. Upheld

June 27, 2003|David G. Savage | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Thursday gave Southern states more leeway to change their electoral boundaries to shift black voters among more districts.

The 5-4 decision upholds a move by Georgia Democrats to increase the influence of black voters. They did so by redrawing districts that had large black majorities.

But this move was challenged -- and blocked -- by Bush administration lawyers as a violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The measure bars the Southern states from changing their elections systems in ways that harm the interests of blacks, and the new Georgia districts had the effect of shrinking the black majority in a few Atlanta-area districts.

But the Supreme Court rejected that interpretation Thursday and said the law should not bar moves that are intended to expand the influence of minority voters.

"The purpose of the Voting Rights Act is to prevent discrimination in the exercise of the electoral franchise," said Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. "Properly interpreted, [it] should encourage the transition to a society where race no longer matters: a society where integration and color-blindness are not just qualities to be proud of, but are simple facts of life."

She cited Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), an African American leader and veteran of the civil rights movement, who had applauded the redrawn boundaries as "giving real power to black voters."

Over the last decade, Democratic activists and civil rights lawyers have switched their views on the wisdom of concentrating black voters in a few districts. After the 1990 census, Democrats favored such moves in the belief they would result in more blacks being elected to state legislatures and to Congress.

However, the concentration of black voters also seemed to strengthen the Republicans in many Southern states, since the Democratic-leaning voters were concentrated in just a few districts.

Since the 2000 census, Democratic activists have favored drawing boundaries so there are black voters in more districts, while Republicans have insisted the changes are unwarranted.

Rick Hasen, an election law expert at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, said Thursday's ruling "is good for Democrats. The packing of minority voters into majority-minority districts tended to benefit Republicans."

But the decision dealt only with "pre-clearance" rules under the Voting Rights Act. Southern states must get approval from the Justice Department before changing electoral districts.

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Southern legislative districts

Majority:

O'Connor

Rehnquist

Scalia

Kennedy

Thomas

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Dissenters:

Souter

Ginsburg

Breyer

Stevens

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