In a case that could force redrawing of Florida congressional districts, the U.S. Supreme Court said states cannot configure new political boundaries based on race alone.
The court decision Thursday came in a case from Georgia involving a congressional district that stretched from Atlanta to Savannah, covering 260 miles and splitting 26 counties. The court said it would apply a new standard to make states prove they used factors besides race, such as commonality of interest and compactness, in drawing political boundary lines.
"Redistricting legislation that is so bizarre on its face that it is unexplainable on grounds other than race" won't pass muster, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said in the court's 5-4 opinion.
In Florida, the ruling could doom new majority black districts that have helped a record number of African-Americans win seats in Congress and the state Legislature.
"The Supreme Court has spoken. The bottom line in this whole thing is racial neutrality is in, affirmative action in reapportionment is out, and it's going to pass into history," said Rod Sullivan, a Jacksonville lawyer representing a white talk-show host who is challenging the validity of a majority black congressional seat.
Civil rights groups denounced the ruling as a step backward. Rigid enforcement of the Voting Rights Act helped send 40 black members to Congress in 1992, the most in the modern era.
"They've really crippled voting rights and have thrown into question the constitutionality of every black-majority district across the nation," said Laughlin McDonald of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Wade Henderson, legal director of the NAACP, called the decision "the first step in the resegregation of American electoral democracy."
Kennedy was joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.
Dissenting were justices John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, David H. Souter and Stephen G. Breyer. Ginsburg noted that more challenges are likely.
"Only after litigation . . . will states now be assured that plans conscious of race are safe," she wrote. "Federal judges in large numbers may be drawn into the fray."
There is no doubt of that happening in Florida.
The state's 3rd Congressional District, stretching from Jacksonville to Orlando, is already under attack in a case that closely parallels Georgia's 11th District. In the Tampa Bay area, three black and two white Tampa residents have challenged Senate District 21, which zigzags through predominantly black sections of four counties to accumulate a 50.2 percent majority black population.
"We believe (the decision) makes our case easier to prove," said Jim Landis, the attorney for the plaintiffs. As it had in Georgia, Landis said, the Justice Department, in its zeal to enforce the Voting Rights Act, had forced the state Supreme Court to require the Tampa Bay black majority district. "If you look at the Florida Supreme Court, they made the decision they did because they didn't think the Justice Department would approve any other plan."
House Speaker Peter Wallace, a Democrat from St. Petersburg, predicted the Legislature will be back in session to redraw congressional lines before the year is out.
Wallace, as reapportionment chairman in 1992, had argued that the Justice Department, then under the Bush administration, was going too far.
"The Republican Party's position was we had to maximize minority representation," he said. "Not only was maximization not required, it was impermissible under the law and the court has made that clear. It is hard to imagine a federal court applying this opinion to Florida's congressional plan and finding that plan valid in its entirety."
Black majority districts were pushed by the Justice Department and the Republican Party during Florida's long and agonizing reapportionment debate in 1992. The result of the new maps approved by the Legislature or the federal courts was that more blacks than ever were elected to the state Legislature and Congress. But districts all around those majority black seats shifted to the Republicans.
After reapportionment, Republicans won seven state Senate seats in the Tampa Bay area and Democrats two. The black voters that had been spread out among three seats held by Democrats were now packed into one.
In Georgia, the effect of redrawing the lines was similar. Of the state's 11 members of Congress, eight are white Republicans and three are black Democrats.
The Florida legislative map, approved by the Legislature, was challenged by House Republicans and ultimately upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. That lawsuit did not include the challenge of the Hargrett seat in the Tampa area.
"When the state assigns voters on the basis of race," Justice Kennedy said in his opinion, "it engages in the offensive and demeaning assumption that voters of a particular race, because of their race, "think alike, share the same political interests and will prefer the same candidates at the polls.' "
_ Information from Times wires was used in this report.
Florida districts challenged
Reapportionment experts say two majority black districts currently being challenged in court could be thrown out based on Thursday's Supreme Court decision. One is a congressional seat, the other a state Senate seat. The 3rd Congressional District, stretches from Jacksonville to Orlando and takes in 14 counties. It's 54 percent black and is represented by Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville. The Tampa-based state Senate seat held by Jim Hargrett is also being challenged in a lawsuit. The district, with a population that is 50.2 percent black, covers parts of Hillsborough, Pinellas, Manatee and Polk counties.