Archive for Monday, April 23, 2001

Gerrymandered district upheld

April 23, 2001


— On April 18, 2001, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a decision supporting the creation of a heavily black congressional district in North Carolina, overthrowing a lower court decision that ruled the district unconstitutional. The 5-4 decision comes at a time when the state's lawmakers are getting ready to redraw district lines again according to the 2000 census data.

North Carolina's 12th District, the epitome of gerrymandering, roughly winds through the state like a snake as it adheres closely to a freeway. The idea of such gerrymandering is to manipulate the district boundaries so that voters who belong predominantly to one political party are lumped together so that adjacent districts are free to elect members of an opposition party. In this case, black voters who are expected to vote Democratic make up a majority of the 12th District.

The opposite use of gerrymandering is to create a district for one party where none existed before. If eight districts in one part of a state voted Republican, for example, and a Democratic legislature wanted to create a Democratic district, it could do so by siphoning off Democratic voters from the eight districts by unusual boundary adjustments.

Either way, gerrymandering is manipulative. And once again the Supreme Court has proven itself to be more a political body than a judicial one. We were highly critical of the Court's involvement during the last presidential election, when the conservative justices sided with George W. Bush. We are equally disturbed now when the Court's more liberal justices are siding with Democrats on this blatant case of gerrymandering.

Here are the facts:

The 12th District has come under Supreme Court scrutiny on three prior occasions. The first was in 1993, when the court decided that white voters had the right to challenge any irregularly drawn district whose borders appear to have been overly influenced by race and that voting districts drawn to help minorities were illegal if they violated the rights of white voters.

In 1996, the Supreme Court ruled that yet another version of the 12th District containing 57 percent of blacks was illegally based on race. In 1998, a federal court ruled that a 1997 version of the district was unconstitutional. That ruling, however, was overturned in 1999 when the Supreme Court ruled that the lower court had erred in deciding the case before first holding a trial.

This time around, the justices found that the district's challengers could not conclusively prove that race was the main consideration when the district was drawn. Justice Stephen Breyer wrote, "The evidence taken together does not show that racial considerations predominated. That is because race in this case correlates closely with political behavior." Justice Breyer also found that the challengers have "not successfully shown that race, rather than politics, predominantly accounts for the result." Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined Breyer in his opinion.

The defense made the argument that the district was drawn with the idea of having roughly equal numbers of blacks and whites. The main consideration was to help keep Democratic U.S. Rep. Melvin Watt in office.

Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas dissented.

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