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Court Again Rejects Race-Drawn Districts Justices Note Hopefully That Blacks Elected In White Areas

Fri., June 20, 1997

Noting with hope new evidence that Southern whites will vote for black candidates, the Supreme Court refused again Thursday to allow state lawmakers or federal civil rights officials to draw oddly shaped majority-black electoral districts.

Georgia can have a black-majority district only in Atlanta, the high court ruled, not the three black-majority districts that were drawn after the 1990 census.

Two years ago, the justices struck down an elongated majority-black district in eastern Georgia, labeling it a “racial gerrymander.” On Thursday, the same 5-4 majority blocked the creation of a black-majority district in the state’s southwest corner, saying it too could not be drawn “without engaging in racial gerrymandering.”

While civil rights lawyers said the decision marked another “bleak day for minorities,” the court’s conservative majority hailed the success of the black lawmakers who were re-elected last fall in new, mostly white districts.

This “is testimony to the general willingness of whites to vote for blacks,” said Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, speaking for the court.

Rep. Cynthia McKinney, a liberal black Democrat, won re-election in a suburban Atlanta district where only one in three voters was black. Rep. Sanford Bishop, a moderate black Democrat, was re-elected in southwestern Georgia in a new district where only 35 percent of the voters were black.

The same trend held true in Texas and Florida, where black lawmakers who had won their seats in black-majority districts won re-election last fall after the court pushed them into new majority-white districts.

“These results also underscore the weakness of the Justice Department’s methodology of calculating the likelihood of a (black candidate’s success) based on strict racial percentages,” Kennedy commented.

Before the 1996 election, the Justice Department had predicted in a brief to the court that the black Georgia lawmakers “would likely be foreclosed from winning” if they were pushed into mostly white districts.

Thursday’s ruling was no surprise. Since 1993, the court has repeatedly attacked “racial gerrymandering” as unconstitutional and insisted the Voting Rights Act does not require states to create “the maximum number of majority-black districts.”

xxxx Other decisions In other decisions announced Thursday, the court: Said the federal government, not Alaska, owns disputed submerged lands along the state’s northeast coast. The ruling thwarts Alaska’s plan to grant oil and gas leases in the Beaufort Sea adjacent to a remote wildlife refuge. Upheld the death sentence of convicted Virginia murderer Joseph Roger O’Dell III, whose case has drawn worldwide protests. Refused in the case of a Minnesota farmer angered by an allegedly defective silo to lengthen the deadline for filing lawsuits under an anti-racketeering law.

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