WASHINGTON — A largely black congressional district can be constitutional if drawn to satisfy political rather than racial motives, a divided Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.
Just in time for the new round of congressional redistricting, the 5-4 ruling gives states a roadmap for drawing boundaries that acknowledge race.
The court upheld the crazy-quilt outline of a North Carolina district drawn after the 1990 Census.
Rep. Mel Watt won the seat in 1992 as one of two blacks sent to Congress that year from a state that had not sent one since 1901.
North Carolina said it redrew the district in 1997 to concentrate Democrats, not blacks. The state wanted to maintain an even split between Democrats and Republicans in its congressional delegation. That goal may be political, but it is also constitutional, state officials argued.
“The evidence ... does not show that racial considerations predominated in the drawing of District 12’s boundaries,” Justice Stephen Breyer wrote for the majority. “That is because race in this case correlates closely with political behavior.”
The majority, led by the court’s more liberal members, said that North Carolina legislators were within their rights to draw a district that strings several city centers along skinny ribbons of countryside.
“After all, the Constitution does not place an affirmative obligation upon the Legislature to avoid creating districts that turn out to be heavily, even majority, minority,” Breyer wrote.
“It simply imposes an obligation not to create such districts for predominantly racial, as opposed to political or traditional, districting motivations.”
State legislatures can follow North Carolina’s lead and provide alternative justification for drawing a heavily black district, while acknowledging that race is part of the equation, national participants in the current redistricting said.
“This decision will help Democrats preserve every existing minority district and protect minority voting opportunities from Republican gerrymanders across the country,” said Rep. Martin Frost, D-Texas, head of his party’s redistricting strategy group.
Republicans also said they liked what they viewed as a decision upholding the status quo.
“I think it certainly gives them (states) some guidance. We have a district here that’s been upheld,” said Don McGahn, general counsel for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Wednesday’s ruling marked the fourth time the high court had looked at Watt’s district.
In a landmark 5-4 ruling in 1993, the high court said the oddly shaped concentration of black voters in a largely white part of the state might violate the rights of white voters.
Majority-black districts were also overturned in Texas, Florida and Georgia.
The high court underscored its reasoning in another case covering the same district in 1996.
North Carolina then redrew the 12th the next year, making it somewhat more compact and reducing the number of blacks it contained.
Watt won re-election in 1998, even as white voters filed and won a new challenge in federal court.
The Supreme Court then overturned the lower court in 1999 and sent the case back. The majority reasoned, much as it did Wednesday, that opponents had not made their case that race was the overriding factor.
This time, Breyer was joined by Justices Sandra Day O’Connor, John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Dissenting were Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy and Clarence Thomas.
O’Connor was the key swing vote. She is a former Republican majority leader of the state Senate in Arizona, and the only member of the court with a background in partisan electoral politics.
The cases are Hunt v. Cromartie, 99-1864, and Smallwood v. Cromartie, 99-1865.
On the Net: Supreme Court site: http://www.supremecourtus.gov