Court limits federal power in vote issues

Bossier Parish case studied

By Bill Walsh

The Times-Picayune, January 25, 2000

The U.S. Supreme Court used an 8-year-old Bossier Parish case Monday to block the Justice Department from erasing local voting district lines, even those devised with a discriminatory purpose, unless they actually cause ethnic minorities to lose representation.

In a 5-4 decision that tracks other recent Vote Rights Act rulings, the court let stand the 12 voting districts adopted in 1992 by the Bossier Parish School Board.

Without saying the school board’s action was discriminatory, the court ruled that the Justice Department cannot block approval of newly drawn voting districts solely because it suspects they were configured to keep ethnic minorities out of office. The court said that the Justice Department’s authority under the 1965 Voting Rights Act only extends to cases of “retrogression,” in which ethnic minorities lose representation.

“To deny preclearance (approval) to a plan that is not retrogressive — no matter how unconstitutional it may be — would risk leaving in effect a status quo that is even worse,” Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the majority.

Later in the opinion Scalia added: “We hold that (the statute) does not prohibit (approval) of a redistricting plan enacted with a discriminatory, but not retrogressive purpose.”

As of 1990, no black school board candidate had been elected Bossier Parish, which is 20 percent African-American. After the 1990 census required new districts to be drawn, the local NAACP chapter proposed creating two black-majority districts.

The school board opted instead for a new map in 1992 with no such district, but the Justice Department refused to clear the plan. A three-judge federal court ruled that the plan must be upheld, setting up the Supreme Court decision.

While the Louisiana case wended its way through federal courts, two black candidates were elected to the 12-member school board in 1994 and were re-elected in 1998, along with a third black candidate.

The decision comes as the U.S. Census Bureau is preparing its decennial national head count, the outcome of which will be used by state and local officials all over the country to redraw their voting lines. Some believe that the court’s ruling sends a strong signal to the Justice Department to be careful about overstepping its bounds in future redistricting cases.

Michael Carvin, a Washington lawyer who argued the case for the school board, said that the court’s message was plain: Concerns about discrimination should be taken up in the federal courts, not decided unilaterally by the Justice Department.

“An obviously discriminatory (motive) is still illegal,” Carvin said. “The significance of this case is that (the Supreme Court) is stripping the Justice Department of power and returning it to the federal court where it belongs. . . . I think the most profound effect will be on state legislative bodies and congressional elections.”

Calls to the Justice Department for comment were not returned.

The case was not easy for the court to decide. Justices rendered an opinion in 1997 on one of the issues in the case, also limiting the Justice Department’s authority. The court heard oral arguments on other issues in the case in April 1999 and, in an unusual move, ordered both sides to come back to reargue the matter in October.

The 5-4 vote suggests that the justices remain closely divided on how to proceed. A legal expert from the American Civil Liberties Union said the margin may be slim, but it has been consistent in interpreting Voting Rights cases throughout the 1990s.

Laughlin McDonald of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project said that in a string of cases, the court’s conservative majority has reined in the federal government’s efforts to improve election opportunites for ethnic minorities.

“This is just another one of those 5-4 decisions in which the majority is giving a very narrow reading of the Voting Rights Act,” McDonald said. “It’s creating the environment where (local officials) know the court will cut you some slack.”

That sentiment was echoed in a blistering dissent penned by Justice David Souter, who spent pages recounting how the Bossier Parish School Board “acted with intent to dilute the black vote, just as it acted with that same intent through decades of resistance to a judicial desegregation order.”

Souter said that the board acted with “flagrantly defiant tactics” in ignoring a desegregation order in the mid-1960s. Throughout the 1970s, Souter wrote, a biracial commission set up to oversee integration at the schools met only two or three times, and then only with the black members present. A similar committee established in the early 1990s was disbanded by the school board after just three months.

Justice Clarence Thomas, who joined the majority opinion, said that the federal government’s concerns about Bossier Parish’s voting lines have been rendered meaningless by developments since the case was filed. He noted in a separate opinion that three African-Americans now sit on the Bossier Parish School Board, all from white-majority districts. The president of the board is also an African-American.

But George Price, the Bossier Parish resident who first challenged the school board’s redistricting plan, said that the suit has been worth it.

Price, former head of the local NAACP, said that the attention the case received in three trips to the U.S. Supreme Court highlighted the problem of minority under-representation on the Bossier Parish School Board. Although it took years, he said he accomplished his most pressing goal.

“I’m glad there is finally some minority representation on the board. That happened because of the suit,” said Price, 56. “My thing was that our kids were being confronted with problems like the dropout rate, lack of programs, the retention rate. I think they have a better chance of being addressed now. There’s a better chance that someone may be listening.”