March 9, 2009 / 5:11 PM / 10 years ago

Supreme Court rejects expanded voting rights protections

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Supreme Court refused Monday to expand the protections for minorities under the federal voting rights law, a decision that may affect the redrawing of legislative boundaries after the 2010 Census.

By a 5-4 vote, the court’s conservative majority ruled that electoral districts must have a majority of blacks or other minorities to be protected by a provision of the Voting Rights Act.

The law, adopted in 1965 and considered a landmark in civil rights legislation, is designed to protect the rights of racial minorities.

The U.S. Constitution requires that the Census be taken every 10 years. Boundaries for legislative election districts are then redrawn to take into account changes in population.

Civil rights groups said the ruling could result in more districts with minorities constituting less than half the population, diluting their voting strength.

The ruling involved a district for the North Carolina House of Representatives where black voters made up less than half of the population. With limited support from white voters, a black candidate has been elected to represent the district in the past.

The district was redrawn and reduced the population of blacks over voting age to 39 percent. The North Carolina Supreme Court ruled the voting rights law does not apply to districts where a minority group accounted for less than half the population.

NEW DISTRICT NOT REQUIRED IN THIS INSTANCE - KENNEDY

Civil rights groups said the ruling could result in districts that dilute the voting strength of black voters, while the state in appealing the decision said issue will affect the voting rights of minorities throughout the country.

Under the Bush administration, the U.S. Justice Department said the state court ruling was correct and that the 50 percent minority requirement in a particular district had been used across the nation for more than 20 years.

The Supreme Court upheld the state court’s decision.

Justice Anthony Kennedy said that when racial minority voters’ rights have been diluted, the voting rights law does not require the creation of a new legislative district as a remedy if less than 50 percent of the district’s population is part of that minority group.

Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito joined Kennedy’s opinion. Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas agreed with the outcome of the case.

The four liberals, Justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer, dissented.

Souter wrote that Kennedy’s opinion “has done all it can to force the states to perpetuate racially concentrated districts, the quintessential manifestations of race consciousness in American politics.”

Ginsburg wrote that Kennedy’s interpretation of the law “is difficult to fathom” and added, “Today’s decision returns the ball to Congress’s court.” She urged lawmakers to clarify the appropriate reading of the law.

The court will hear arguments in April on another important voting rights case. It involves the law’s provision that requires states or local governments with histories of racial discrimination to get federal approval before making any changes in election procedures.

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