Supreme Court Continues Assault on Voting Rights In Georgia Case Brought by ACLU

June 19, 1997 12:00 am

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Thursday, June 19, 1997

WASHINGTON — Continuing its assault on minority voting rights, the United States Supreme Court today upheld a redistricting plan drawn by a Georgia federal district court that destroyed two of the state’s three majority black congressional districts.

In a 5-to-4 majority decision authored by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the Supreme Court brushed aside arguments by minority voters and the Department of Justice that the two majority-minority districts were required by the Voting Rights Act.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which brought the case, said the Court has once again chipped away at the Voting Rights Act and watered down the voting power of minorities.

“This is not just a bleak day for minorities, it is a bleak day for Americans of all races,” said Laughlin McDonald, the director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project who argued the case before the Supreme Court on behalf of minority voters last December.

“A majority of the Court seems determined to cripple the Voting Rights Act, which more than any other civil rights law has helped rid us of discrimination in voting and bring the races closer together,” McDonald added.

The Supreme Court also rejected arguments made by minority voters that the lower federal court was obligated to defer to the state legislature’s decision at the beginning of the redistricting process to create at least two majority black congressional districts.

The lower court had held that because race was a predominant factor in the 1990s redistricting process in Georgia, its task in implementing a court ordered remedy was “akin to those cases in which states had no plans.” Rather than merely correcting the unconstitutional features of the prior plan (which it could have done by removing narrow “land bridges” and appendages designed to collect black population), the lower court redrew the entire map of the state based upon its own ideas about where district lines should go.

As a result, the lower federal court reduced the black voting age population in the Eleventh District congressional district from 60 percent to 11 percent, and put it in a completely different part of the state — taking it out of DeKalb County and the southeastern area and placing it in the northeast Atlanta corridor. Other districts were similarly relocated. The court’s plan moved almost a third of the state’s population into new congressional districts.

In affirming the decision of the lower court, the ACLU’s McDonald said, the Supreme Court has sanctioned a major shift in the responsibility for redistricting from state legislatures to the federal courts. Prior decisions of the Court held that redistricting was primarily a matter for state legislatures and that in implementing remedial plans the federal courts were to take a “least change” approach and defer to the extent that they could to a state’s legitimate redistricting policy choices.

Steven R. Shapiro, the ACLU’s National Legal Director, said that “a supposedly conservative, judicially restrained Court has not hesitated to rewrite the law in the voting and redistricting area to the substantial detriment of minority voters.”

The case is Abrams v. Johnson, No. 95-1425.

Founded in 1920, the ACLU is a nationwide, non-partisan organization dedicated to defending and preserving the Bill of Rights for all individuals through litigation, legislation and public education. The Voting Rights Project is based in Atlanta and works to ensure equal representation for minority voters.

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