Census figures released last month show how the Hispanic population, in particular, has grown. Hispanics now make up 12.5% of the U.S. population, about equal to the black population.
The ruling will allow states to draw zigzagging boundaries that consolidate voters of a particular race, as long as officials can justify their plans with reasons other than race. Those reasons can include party politics or other interests that bind people together. What states cannot do, the court has said, is use race as the main factor in such decisions.
Many redistricting analysts say that, overall, the court still has tough standards for the creation of black or other ''minority majority'' districts. Since 1993, the court generally has opposed such districts. Justices say they perpetuate stereotypes and the patterns of bloc voting they were intended to remedy.
By a 5-4 vote Wednesday, the justices upheld a winding North Carolina congressional district that consolidated large black populations from urban areas. The justices reversed a lower court's decision that the district was an unconstitutional racial gerrymander.
The ruling was the latest to show how critical Justice Sandra Day O'Connor is in deciding the court's hottest cases, particularly on divisive questions of race. The conservative justice is the architect of the court's rationale for scrutinizing voting districts that consolidate minorities, and has voted to reject majority-black districts in other states.
But Wednesday she agreed with the more liberal justices that the motivation of North Carolina legislators was not ''predominantly'' race and that other traditional map-drawing factors, such as protecting incumbents, were overriding. The court said that when white voters challenge a heavily black district as unconstitutional, they must show that lawmakers could have achieved their legitimate political objectives without fusing minority communities.
Justice Stephen Breyer wrote the majority opinion. It was the second time in the past year that the newest justice, who joined the court in 1994, was able to persuade O'Connor to join liberal justices on a difficult issue. Last June, she signed his opinion to strike down state bans on a rare procedure that opponents call ''partial-birth'' abortion.
''This is very good news for state legislatures as they begin the complex redistricting process,'' says Walter Dellinger, a former U.S. solicitor general who argued the state's case. ''The court has given states a good bit of breathing room. If the decision had gone the other way, states might have reduced the number of blacks in a district'' to be safe from lawsuits, such as the one white voters brought against North Carolina.
Robinson Everett, who represented the white voters, says the ruling ''is an invitation to evade the principle of equal protection embodied in (prior cases) by creating an easy way to conceal a racial motive. You can always say that we did it for political reasons because the most reliable Democratic voters were African-American.''
But the high court did not retreat from prior rulings that invite challenges to districts that appear to group voters by race. It also reinforced the rule that race may not be the ''predominant'' factor in drawing the lines of the congressional district.
State redistricting experts say the ruling gives Democrats and Republicans the opening to racially gerrymander, as long as they can support their redrawn districts with voting-pattern data.
Breyer's opinion relied heavily on the fact that North Carolina wanted to help a Democratic incumbent by linking areas that voted reliably Democratic and happened to be black.
Peter Watson, counsel to the Minnesota Senate on redistricting, says that in situations in which legislatures' motives for redrawing districts might involve race and politics, ''the court has made it a little more easy to say it was not race.''
Kathay Feng, voting rights specialist at the Asian Pacific American Legal Center in Los Angeles, says the ruling shows that race can be considered only relative to politics and voter behavior: ''In the 1980s and 1990s, districts were created using race as a blunt instrument. The ruling asks us to look deeper and use race in balance with other factors.''
Analysts say the decision was a clear victory for African-Americans, who vote overwhelmingly Democratic. Their districts are legally defensible. But it's less clear that states will be able to draw districts with a majority of Hispanic or Asian-American voters.
The ruling satisfied both major parties -- Democrats because they usually win heavily black districts, Republicans because they often gain advantages in the surrounding districts.
U.S. Rep. Melvin Watt, a black Democrat whose district was at issue in the North Carolina case, says that ''after almost 10 years of litigation, I am happy that the Supreme Court has finally closed this chapter.''
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