Noting with hope new evidence that Southern whites will vote for black candidates, the Supreme Court refused again Thursday to allow state lawmakers or federal civil rights officials to draw oddly shaped majority-black electoral districts.
Georgia can have a black-majority district only in Atlanta, the high court ruled, not the three black-majority districts that were drawn after the 1990 census.
Two years ago, the justices struck down an elongated majority-black district in eastern Georgia, labeling it a “racial gerrymander.” On Thursday, the same 5-4 majority blocked the creation of a black-majority district in the state’s southwest corner, saying it too could not be drawn “without engaging in racial gerrymandering.”
While civil rights lawyers said the decision marked another “bleak day for minorities,” the court’s conservative majority hailed the success of the black lawmakers who were reelected last fall in new, mostly white districts.
This “is testimony to the general willingness of whites to vote for blacks,” said Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, speaking for the court.
Rep. Cynthia A. McKinney, a liberal black Democrat, won reelection in a suburban Atlanta district where only one in three voters was black. Rep. Sanford D. Bishop Jr., a moderate black Democrat, was reelected in southwestern Georgia in a new district where only 35% of the voters were black.
The same trend held true in Texas and Florida, where black lawmakers who had won their seats in black-majority districts won reelection last fall after the court pushed them into new majority-white districts.
“These results also underscore the weakness of the Justice Department’s methodology of calculating the likelihood of a [black candidate’s success] based on strict racial percentages,” Kennedy commented.
Prior to the 1996 election, the Justice Department had predicted in a brief to the court that the black Georgia lawmakers “would likely be foreclosed from winning” if they were pushed into mostly white districts.
Thursday’s ruling comes as no surprise. Since 1993, the court has attacked “racial gerrymandering” as unconstitutional in a series of rulings and insisted the Voting Rights Act does not require states to create “the maximum number of majority-black districts.”
After the 1990 census, the Justice Department under Presidents Bush and Clinton pressed the Southern states to draw the greatest number of districts with black majorities. Lawyers in the department’s civil rights division told state lawmakers this policy was required under the Voting Rights Act.
But the high court called a halt to this policy four years ago, and it has been steadily striking down the array of oddly shaped majority-black districts that resulted. The only black-majority districts that have been spared are those in cities such as Atlanta and New Orleans, where a black majority can be formed without drawing unusual lines.
After the initial ruling, civil rights leaders reacted with outrage, predicting that these rulings would sweep aside black representatives from the South. The Rev. Jesse Jackson lambasted the court for mandating “a kind of ethnic cleansing.” Elaine Jones, chief counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, said the court was “closing the noose” on black lawmakers.
So far, however, none of the South’s black representatives has been defeated as a result of the rulings, with the possible exception of Cleo Fields, a Louisiana Democrat. After his majority-black district was ordered redrawn, he chose to run for governor in 1996 and was defeated.
Laughlin McDonald, director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project in Atlanta, said it is too early to tell about the impact of the court’s decisions.
“These people ran this year as incumbents, and that gives you an enormous advantage,” he said. First-time black candidates might still have a hard time winning election in white-majority districts, he said.
In a prepared statement, the ACLU on Thursday denounced the court for “continuing its assault on minority voting rights” and said its stingy reading of the law would “cripple the Voting Rights Act.”
After the 1995 ruling that struck down McKinney’s district, the Georgia Legislature was not able to agree on new boundaries for its 11 congressional districts. Instead, a three-judge panel was forced to do the job, and it created only one black-majority district, the central Atlanta district served by Democratic Rep. John Lewis.
The ACLU and the Justice Department appealed that result in the case of Abrams vs. Johnson, 95-1425, arguing that the state should go back to the two majority-black districts originally proposed by the Georgia Legislature in 1991.
Kennedy’s opinion rejecting that idea was joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Sandra Day O’Connor, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.