The Supreme Court, with its conservative majority in charge, dealt a severe blow Thursday to the political power wielded by blacks and Latinos, ruling that the government may not use race as a primary reason for drawing election district boundaries.
The 5-4 ruling in a Georgia case threatens many, if not all, of the districts that have been drawn in the past decade for the purpose of electing more minority representatives to Congress, state legislatures and county boards. It highlighted the final day of a term in which the conservative court moved dramatically to curtail the use of race in a way that benefits minorities.
Like the ruling two weeks ago undercutting federal affirmative action programs, the justices insisted Thursday that the Constitution requires the government to “cleanse” itself of using race as a basis for making decisions, whether it is putting persons on juries, awarding government contracts or drawing electoral boundaries.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 seeks to gives all Americans “an equal opportunity to gain public office regardless of race,” wrote Justice Anthony M. Kennedy for the court. “That end is neither assured nor well served, however, by carving electorates into racial blocs,” he added.
President Clinton said he was “disappointed” by the court’s ruling on voting rights and called it “a setback in the struggle to ensure that all Americans participate fully in the electoral process.”
The strict ban on the use of race as a basis for drawing election boundaries marks a decided change in the law, and one that is likely to work to the disadvantage of minorities. For the past 15 years, the Justice Department has used the Voting Rights Act to press states, counties and cities to do their best to create districts that will elect black and Latino candidates.
Until 1990, not a single African American was elected to Congress during this century from Alabama, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, Louisiana or Virginia, all states with a substantial black population.
But after the 1990 census, the states redrew their electoral boundaries, and the number of black representatives in Congress doubled, to 39. All but three of those representatives come from districts with black majorities, however.
Now, under Thursday’s ruling, white voters can file lawsuits to challenge those “race-based” districts as unconstitutional.