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Supreme Court limits reach of Voting Rights Act

The justices, in a 5-4 ruling in a North Carolina case, say 'cross-over' voting districts do not have to be drawn in order to give black candidates a realistic chance of winning.

March 10, 2009|David G. Savage

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court limited the reach of the Voting Rights Act on Monday, ruling that there was no duty to draw voting districts that would elect black candidates in areas where blacks were less than a majority.

In a 5-4 decision, the court said officials need not consider race when drawing districts for state legislatures, county boards, city councils and school districts, so long as blacks did not make up a voting majority in a particular area.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, speaking for the court, said the law could "hasten the waning of racism in American politics" by making race less of a factor in drawing electoral districts.

State lawmakers in North Carolina had drawn a district with a 39% black population that could have a chance of electing an African American. In Monday's decision, the justices rejected the "crossover district," which had resulted in the election of a black woman to the state's General Assembly.

The court said the law applied "only when a geographically compact group of minority voters could form a majority in a single-member district," Kennedy said.

The decision arose under the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the landmark law that made voting rights a reality for blacks in the South. Until passage of the act, states and counties had used schemes to bar blacks from registering and casting ballots.

But the portions of the act that deal with election districts have proved more confusing and controversial. In 1982, Congress revised the law to say states may not deprive minority voters of the opportunity to "elect representatives of their choice."

Until Monday, there has been a dispute over how to read that requirement.

On the one hand, the court agreed that lawmakers may not divide up a solidly minority community and thereby deprive black or Latino voters of electing the "representative of their choice."

On the other hand, the law does not require officials to try to create a crossover district, where a sizable minority population and some whites probably would elect a black candidate, the justices said.

In North Carolina, county officials had challenged a district in the southeastern part of the state because it combined voters from two counties. The North Carolina Supreme Court agreed with the challengers and said state law forbids breaking up counties.

In their appeal, North Carolina lawmakers said they were following the mandate of the Voting Rights Act.

The Supreme Court affirmed the state court ruling. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. joined Kennedy to form the majority.

In dissent, Justice David H. Souter said the ruling took a step backward because it would discourage "minority-opportunity districts" in which blacks or Latinos could win with the support of whites.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) said the ruling "dealt a serious blow to the progress of the civil rights movement" by limiting the application of the Voting Rights Act.

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david.savage@latimes.com

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