It was the fourth time the court has ruled on such North Carolina racial redistricting, but for the first time the court's four liberals were joined by moderate conservative Justice Sandra Day O'Connor in a definitive decision. For the first time as well, a narrow Supreme Court majority appears to be saying that race can a simple expression of raw politics, rather than a manifestation of racial politics.
Wednesday's ruling represents a significant step in how the Supreme Court analyzes government actions that involve race.
In 1993, a Supreme Court majority led by O'Connor ruled in Shaw vs. Reno that race could not be the dominant factor when redrawing congressional districts, unless there was some compelling state interest such as eliminating racial discrimination. Further, any discrimination had to be continuing and not just historical.
The Shaw decision led to Supreme Court rulings that invalidated irregularly shaped congressional districts drawn in several states, because they had been drawn up primarily to result in black or Hispanic majorities. Wednesday's Supreme Court decision, however, appeared to open the door for other black-majority districts to be upheld by federal courts.
The 1993 Supreme Court ruling in Shaw vs. Reno and another in 1996 dealt with North Carolina's former District 12, one of two drawn up in 1992 that contained a majority of black voters.
In 1999's Hunt vs. Cromartie, the Supreme Court dealt with a redrawn District 12. A three-judge U.S. District Court had ruled that the newly redrawn district was still unconstitutional because it used criteria that were "race driven." The Supreme Court subsequently reversed the lower panel, saying there was not enough evidence to say that the redrawn district was race-based.
When the case returned to U.S. District Court, the panel again ruled that the district violated the equal protection clause of the Constitution because it favored one race over another. The judges said the district was race-based because it was irregularly drawn, divided towns and counties and was heavily black in registration. The Supreme Court heard the appeal of that ruling last November and reversed the panel again Wednesday.
"The [lower] court's findings, in our view, are clearly erroneous," Justice Stephen Breyer said for the narrow majority.
Those white voters challenging District 12 must prove that a government action is unexplainable except for motives having to do with race, he said. The District Court judges believed the evidence pointed to that conclusion, Breyer said, but they were relying on evidence of "voting registration," not "voting behavior."
White Democrats cross over to vote for Republicans far more often than black Democrats do, Breyer said.
"A legislature may, by placing reliable Democratic precincts within a district without regard to race, end up with a district containing more heavily African-American precincts," Breyer said, "but the reasons would be political rather than racial."
Justice Clarence Thomas, the court's only black member, was joined by two fellow conservatives and moderate Justice Anthony Kennedy in a mild dissent.
Thomas said if he had been a trial judge in the case, he might have reached the same conclusion as the narrow Supreme Court majority.
"But I am not the trier of fact, and it is not my role to weigh evidence in the first instance," Thomas said.
The only question for the Supreme Court in the case, Thomas added, was whether the U.S. "District Court's finding of racial predominance was clearly erroneous. In light of the direct evidence of racial motive and the inferences that may be drawn from the circumstantial evidence, I am satisfied that the District Court's finding was permissible, even if not compelled by the record."
District 12 includes much of North Carolina's major urban areas and is represented by Democrat Rep. Melvin Watt.
(No. 99-1864, Gov. Hunt et al vs. Cromartie et al.)
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