Court Limits Judges' Authority to Invalidate Election Districts

Article excerpt

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court made it harder yesterday for federal judges to invalidate election districts drawn by state legislatures just because they suspect race was the major factor in setting the boundaries.

The unanimous ruling in a North Carolina case could have great influence on redistricting disputes nationwide after the 2000 census by forcing judges to be more certain of the role race played before striking down a reapportionment plan.

The decision did not mark any change, however, in the Supreme Court's consistent hostility to making race the prime factor for drawing election district boundaries. The court has been intent since 1993 on minimizing such use of race. In a series of decisions, the court has said that drawing districts primarily to maintain or enhance minority voting power unlawfully discriminates against white voters.

But the justices voted yesterday to overturn a three-judge federal court's conclusion that North Carolina's 12th Congressional District was unlawfully drawn by the state legislature in 1997. The district is represented by Democrat Mel Watt, one of two blacks elected to Congress in 1992 from a state that had not sent a black to Washington since 1901.

Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the court, said the lower court wrongly chose not to conduct a full trial before ruling last year that the 1997 election map was too race-conscious. The three-judge court made that ruling in what lawyers call a "summary judgment" after considering the 12th District's shape and its racial makeup.

"Evidence tends to support an inference that the state drew its district lines to support an impermissible racial motive -- even though . …