High Court Upholds N.C. Voting District

ByGeraldine Sealey

April 18, 2001 -- A divided U.S. Supreme Court today allowed a contested North Carolina congressional district to stand today, saying race was not the only consideration in drawing its boundaries.

The 5-4 ruling is expected to guide the redrawing of voting district lines in North Carolina and across the nation. The court has considered the fate of this North Carolina voting district four times in the last eight years.

In 1993, the court held that racially-drawn districts could violate the rights of white voters.

In the case of North Carolina's 12th District, however, Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote for the court's majority that "the evidence … does not show that racial considerations predominated in the drawing of … boundaries. That is because race in this case correlates closely with political behavior."

A lower court ruling saying the district was unconstitutionally based on race was "clearly erroneous," in its findings, Breyer said. Also voting in the majority were Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Dissenting were Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy and Clarence Thomas.

Writing for the dissent, Thomas said the lower court ruling should not be overturned.

Interpreting the Boundaries

At issue in the case is the design of District 12, which was drawn in 1992 after the 1990 Census to comply with the federal Voting Rights Act. The new boundaries, 160 miles long and sometimes as narrow as the highway, created a black-majority in the district.

In every election since the redrawing, the district's voters have elected Democrat Rep. Mel Watt to a seat in Congress. The district includes a central portion of the state including Charlotte, Winston-Salem and Greensboro, which large black populations and tend to vote Democratic.

Previously, no African-American had represented North Carolina in Congress in close to a century. Similar boundaries were drawn in the state's 1st Congressional District in Eastern North Carolina with similar effect, electing Rep. Eva Clayton.

Not long after the 1992 redistricting, several residents launched a lawsuit claiming the new districts were unconstitutional because their boundaries were based solely on race.

But the state has argued politics, not race, was the major factor considered.Lawyers for the state argued that legislators wanted to ensure the district was safely Democratic, to maintain an even representation of Republicans and Democrats in the state's congressional delegation.

Long Legal History

The history of the 12th District has been rich with controversy and litigation.

In 1993, the U.S. Supreme Court called the wildly-drawn District, with a black majority of 57 percent, "political apartheid." The district wound "in snake-like fashion through tobacco country, financial centers and manufacturing areas until it gobbles in enough enclaves of black neighborhoods."

Three years later, the high court struck down the district's lines, ruling that race couldn't be the "dominant and controlling" factor in districting.

State lawmakers then redrew the lines in 1997, creating a black majority of 47 percent. But the following year, a federal district court rejected the design and the state appealed.

In 1999, the Supreme Court said the district court should not have discarded the design without conducting a trial. The 1997 map, therefore, was allowed to stand.

After a trial last year, the district court again rejected the 12th District and the high court heard arguments in the case last November.

The cases are Cromartie vs. Hunt and Smallwood vs. Hunt.

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