Archive for Wednesday, April 25, 2001

Ruling fuels redistricting follies

April 25, 2001


The redistricting season got off to a splendid start last week and promises to bring as much amusement to Washington as the new Mel Brooks musical, "The Producers," apparently will deliver on Broadway. Our political slapstick promises mind-reading, side-switching Supreme Court justices, feuding politicians and enough hypocrisy to choke a rhinoceros.

Every 10 years, when the results of the latest Census are reported, seats in city councils, state legislative chambers and the House of Representatives have to be redistributed to keep the districts as equal in population as possible. Theoretically, that mandate could be accomplished by taking a cookie-cutter to the map and blocking out squares of varying size, each with the same number of citizens.

That ain't the way it happens.

Instead, the legislatures (which perform this artistry except in a few fun-killing states which assign the work to nonpartisan commissions) take cognizance of such above-board considerations as traditional political and geographic boundaries. But they give even greater weight to such urgent if unmentionable goals as protecting their friends, discomfiting their opponents and drawing favorable districts for themselves.

After the legislatures do their worst, someone is sure to challenge the resulting map in court and then the real fun begins. Judges, it seems, are frustrated cartographers and their inclination to seize the pencil and eraser is almost literally irresistible.

A real cartographer, Syracuse University geography professor Mark Monmonier, explains what happens, in a delightful new book titled "Bushmanders and Bullwinkles," which he describes as "an examination of how legislators, redistricting officials and constitutional lawyers use maps as both tools and weapons." Along the way, he touches several times on the relatively new role of judges as map-makers.

Too late for Monmonier's book, but just in time to mark the start of another banner season of judicially supervised redistricting, the Supreme Court last week delivered a decision upholding the constitutionality of North Carolina's 12th Congressional District. Created 10 years ago by the North Carolina Legislature with the clear goal of ending the all-white history of the 12-member congressional delegation from a state that is 22 percent black, it has been held since 1992 by African-American Democratic Rep. Melvin Watt.

But it has rarely had the same boundaries two elections in a row. A series of court cases and legislative responses has transformed it from a notably long and skinny district picking up black enclaves from Durham down to Charlotte into a shorter, fatter (and less African-American) district running from Charlotte to Winston-Salem.

White plaintiffs have taken the case to the Supreme Court four separate times, with a record of one win, one loss and two ties (remands to lower courts requesting further clarification).

The issue each time has been whether the legislators who drew the 12th District had made its racial composition the "predominant factor" in their craftsmanship, thereby violating a constitutional prohibition against segregating people on the basis of race.

Determining the answer involved a painstaking review of the arguments explicit and implicit that went into its formation and the raw materials that the legislators in Raleigh used in constructing it. At times, it came awfully close to judicial mind-reading.

What made the case so vexing was the simple fact that most African-American voters mark their ballots for Democrats. If the legislators were trying to draw a safely Democratic district, it would be OK assuming it met the other tests the courts usually apply. But if their goal was mainly to draw a safely black district, that would be a no-no.

When the Supreme Court looked at the first version of District 12, the justices concluded it was racial gerrymandering, and threw it out. By a 5-4 decision. When they looked at the latest version, just last week, it looked like good old-fashioned political gerrymandering and they said it could stand. Again, by a 5-4 decision.

The swing vote, in both cases, was that of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who has occupied that role so often on closely contested redistricting cases that she has become the virtual Czarina of Remaps, aka She Who Must Be Satisfied.

Politicians and their consultants pore over every word O'Connor has uttered on this subject, trying to assure themselves that they have plausible arguments to offer her when the inevitable moment arrives and they are trying to defend their maps in the Supreme Court.

O'Connor reigns supreme. And when she retires, Mel Brooks would be the logical successor.

David Broder is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.

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