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Districts Designed to Favor Blacks Ruled Legal by Court

<i> From Associated Press</i>

Even though two oddly shaped congressional districts were drawn to ensure that blacks are elected, they are legal because their aim is to correct past injustices, a panel of federal judges has ruled.

The 2-1 ruling on Monday rejected a lawsuit by five white voters who claimed that the state’s redistricting plan was unconstitutional.

“It is a justifiable invocation of a concededly drastic . . . remedy in order to continue the laborious struggle to break free of a legacy of racial bloc voting,” U.S. District Judge J. Dickson Phillips Jr. wrote for the majority.

The dissenting judge, Richard Voorhees, wrote that the plan means that “North Carolinians must live for an indefinite period of time with congressional districts in which the races are intentionally made ‘separate but equal’ without sufficient justification.”

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One of the plaintiffs, Duke University law professor Melvin Shimm, said he expected an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The majority agreed with the plaintiffs’ claim that the districts were racially gerrymandered--drawn to make it likely that blacks would be elected--but said that did not violate voters’ rights.

“The plan passes constitutional muster under that standard because it is narrowly tailored to further the state’s compelling interest in complying with the Voting Rights Act,” Phillips wrote.

The redistricting created black voter majorities in the 1st and 12th congressional districts. Two years ago, Eva Clayton and Mel Watt became North Carolina’s first black U.S. representatives since 1901.

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Watt’s district, the 12th, is a narrow band that runs 160 miles along Interstate 85 from Gastonia to Durham. The 1st District, represented by Clayton, begins at the Virginia line in the northeast part of the state and weaves east to within a few miles of the South Carolina line.

Last week, a federal court eliminated a majority-black congressional district in Louisiana, saying its contorted shape amounted to racial gerrymandering. That panel said that blacks have enough protection against discrimination and that discarding traditional districting principles to carve out one-race districts simply for the sake of race is contrary to the Constitution.

In June, 1993, the Supreme Court ruled that state legislatures may be violating white voters’ rights when they create congressional districts designed to give minorities a majority. The judges said that states must have a compelling reason to make such districts.

In light of the high court ruling, the North Carolina panel took another look but decided Monday that past discrimination was a compelling reason.

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