WASHINGTON — A fractured Supreme Court narrowed the protections of the Voting Rights Act on Monday, saying it does not require governments to draw electoral districts favorable to minority candidates in places where minorities make up less than half the population.
By a 5-4 vote, the court said race must be considered only in drawing boundaries where a "geographically compact group of minority voters" make up at least 50 percent of a single-member district.
The decision will limit the legal options for minorities challenging redistricting efforts that they believe dilute their voting rights after the 2010 census. The court said Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act cannot be read as requiring "crossover districts," where minority voters are grouped in such significant numbers that they can elect a representative of their choice with only a small amount of support from majority voters.
The splintered opinion showed how divided the court remains in considering the issue of race and political representation and uneasy about the role the judiciary must play.
"There is an underlying principle of fundamental importance: We must be most cautious before interpreting a statute to require courts to make inquiries based on racial classifications and race-based predictions," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the plurality opinion.
He was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito. Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas agreed with the outcome but not the reasoning of Kennedy's ruling.
The opinion confirmed Kennedy's likely pivotal role when the court next month considers a constitutional challenge to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires all or parts of 16 states with a history of racial discrimination to get federal approval before enacting any change to their voting laws.