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A "perilous' decision

There is no compelling evidence that grotesquely gerrymandered districts work to the ultimate benefit of black voters, or of the political process in general. So if a majority of Supreme Court justices had simply set out to bar bizarrely shaped creations such as Georgia's 11th congressional district (and the 24th state Senate district here in Tampa Bay), they could have established a set of redistricting ground rules that are fair for black and white voters alike.

But the court's most doctrinaire reactionaries had more sweeping ambitions. Thursday's 5-4 decision did not just bar districts whose shapes are based on racial considerations to the virtual exclusion of all other factors. Instead, Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, said plaintiffs now must show only that the architects of new district lines "subordinated traditional race-neutral districting principles . . . to racial considerations."

For decades, of course, white legislators in the South used "racial considerations" to create legislative and congressional districts that denied black voters fair representation in state and national politics. And in the urban North, similar ethnic considerations have been used to carve out districts that are, say, identifiably Irish or Polish.

Given that history, it is only logical that race should be one of many factors _ such as geography, urbanization, partisan identification and incumbency _ to be taken into consideration in drawing equitable district lines. But the vague language and hostile tone of Kennedy's opinion give little guidance to legislatures that want to make a good-faith effort to assure that minority voters receive fair consideration. As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted in her dissent, the opinion makes it "perilous" for any legislature to make race a major factor in redistricting.

Still, the court majority is correct in asserting that some of the most strangely shaped legislative and congressional districts have gone too far in placing racial identification above all other factors. For example, most of the voters in Georgia's 11th district are blacks living in the metropolitan Atlanta area. But the district also is distorted to encompass thousands of black voters living in rural areas more than 200 miles away. Their common skin color doesn't necessarily outweigh regional considerations, and other factors, that can affect the quality and fairness of their representation. Had the court simply employed the same standard it used in flagging a similarly shaped North Carolina district in 1993, it could easily have thrown out the 11th district without creating so much uncertainty and concern.

Ironically, this decision by the court's five most conservative justices may work to the ultimate detriment of their Republican soul mates in Congress. The distorted districts have helped to elect a handful of additional black officials, but they also have worked to the advantage of many more white politicians who would just as soon not be bothered with black constituents. For example, Georgia's congressional delegation now consists of three black Democrats and eight white Republicans, thanks in large part to the odd 11th district that "bleaches" several others of black voters.

The result in Washington is a Congress in which a record number of black members are routinely overwhelmed by a far larger bloc of ultraconservative members whose actions are no longer moderated by a diversity of voter interests within their districts. The Supreme Court had a chance to establish a new standard that would guide redistricting in a direction that would counteract that growing polarization, but the court majority chose instead to adopt language that may only lead to further divisiveness.