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Supreme Court Reporter

May 17, 1999 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Two Supreme Court rulings, and to Phil Ponce.

PHIL PONCE: They dealt with two important issues of the term: Whether states can limit welfare benefits for new residents, and how race can be used in drawing the boundaries of congressional districts. Here to explain these decisions is NewsHour regular Jan Crawford Greenburg, national legal affairs correspondent for the “Chicago Tribune.” Jan, let’s start with the welfare case first. It came out of California. What is it that the state of California wanted to do?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Well, in this era of welfare reform, California wanted to limit the payments it would give new residents, people who had been in the state less than one year, to the amount they would receive in their original state, in the state that they came from.

PHIL PONCE: And so, for example, one of the Justices cited an example of what it would mean to a family of four moving from Mississippi to California.


PHIL PONCE: What would the difference be as far as how much monthly payments they got in welfare benefits?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: In the court’s ruling today, Justice Stevens, who wrote the majority, showed the extreme impact that this scheme could have. Like you said, a family of four from Mississippi would get $144 in the state of Mississippi. When they moved to California, a similar family in California would be getting $673. But the family of four from Mississippi for the next year would only get $144, even though it costs them the same to live in California.

PHIL PONCE: As people getting the full, the higher amount, Californians who had been there a while.

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Right, more than one year.

PHIL PONCE: And why did the state say it was in favor of this scheme? What was the reason behind it?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: They said it was very important for them to keep the costs of welfare under control. This was their most expensive welfare program, the temporary assistance to needy families. It costs $2.6 billion. And they said that this would be a good way for them to save about $11 million that they could use that money, that savings, to put into new programs as they’re trying to reform welfare, for example job training. That would be something they wanted to reallocate these funds toward.

PHIL PONCE: And was there also a concern that states that had “generous welfare payments” might attract people from other states where the welfare benefits were not quite as “generous”?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Some people made that argument that California would act as a welfare magnet, but certainly the evidence was conflicting on that issue. And there was other evidence that showed that people never, you know, shop around to find a state where they can get the most in welfare. So that was really unclear. Of course, as I say, California said that this was, you know, very important for them to save money. Now, the people who were hard hit by this program say, that’s not really the reason. They wanted to keep us out because we are poor. And in the opinion today, Justice Stevens noted that California could save the same amount of money simply by cutting about 72 cents a month for every beneficiary.

PHIL PONCE: Because, ultimately the Supreme Court looked at that scheme and said -

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Today’s scheme was unconstitutional and that California could not do that, and if they wanted to save $11 million a year, they could just cut 72 cents off the payments that every beneficiary got. It would amount to the same thing.

PHIL PONCE: So the court said this was unconstitutional based on what reasoning?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: The right to travel, which is as the Court said today, deeply embedded in Supreme Court jurisprudence, though nowhere mentioned in the text of the Constitution.

PHIL PONCE: There is a constitutional right to travel?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Yes. And the Court has held that for decades and decades. Justice Stevens today said that the right to travel is very important. It stems from notions of personal liberty and the concept of the United States as a federal union. He stressed that the right to travel really encompasses three areas: For example, it protects the right of people to travel through a state, to go from one state to another, on the interstate. And a state couldn’t erect a barrier to keep people from traveling through.

The right to travel also protects the temporary visitor, ensures that the temporary visitor to a state won’t be treated as the court said today, like an alien. And finally, the right to travel protects the person who wants to become a more permanent resident. And that is what the case centered on today, people who want to become more permanent residents. And for them, and this was a key part of the holding, the right to travel also encompasses another right found in the Constitution, and that’s in the 14th Amendment.

The court said today that the right to travel also means that newly arrived citizens will get the same privileges and the same immunities that people who are already established in the state get. And that constitutional clause, that privileges and immunities clause, which is in the 14th Amendment, is rarely invoked. And today the court invoked it. And Justice Stevens used very sweeping and strong language. And he got the support of six other Justices.

PHIL PONCE: So what’s the impact?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: The impact in the short term means California and 14 other states cannot implement these kind of programs.

PHIL PONCE: Because 14 other states also had the same kind of rule where if you moved to this state, the old benefits level will hold for a year, not the new “higher” level?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: That’s right. And those states included Illinois, Pennsylvania, you know, quite a few large states. But it also means that other states grappling with welfare reform can’t do this. They won’t be able to implement these programs.

PHIL PONCE: So it is back to the drawing board for those states then, as for as the level of benefits for newcomers?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Under this scheme, yes.

PHIL PONCE: Jan, let’s go to the second case. It’s out of North Carolina and it’s a redistricting case. Tell us about that. What were the facts in that case?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: This case shows how complex and convoluted some of the redistricting efforts have been on the Supreme Court as it’s tried to come to terms when states, when they’re seeking to draw legislative districts, can ever take race into account. Some states have sought to add more minorities to increase minority representation in Congress, and have drawn districts that do take race into account to increase –

PHIL PONCE: This is a congressional district, the 12th District in North Carolina.


PHIL PONCE: Where — what was the characteristic of how the state tried to draw the boundary lines there?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: They tried to encompass, initially, and this again is a convoluted history and quite complex procedurally, it’s the third time the court has taken up this district, and the state keeps going back to the drawing board, but it’s a long, squiggly district that goes down the interstate. And it draws in a lot of African-Americans and a lot of Democratic voters, the district.

PHIL PONCE: So it had been challenged because race had been used as a predominant factor, which the Supreme Court has said you can’t do that.

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Right. The court in 1993 said white voters could challenge some of these districts as reverse discrimination. And since then, the court has been pretty hostile to efforts to create these kind of race-based districts.

PHIL PONCE: But today the court ruled?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Right. Today the court issued a pretty rare victory for civil liberties groups and others that support them and said that federal judges should not be so quick to invalidate these districts if evidence shows that there were other factors involved in creating them. For example, simply because a lot of African-Americans are in the district doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily drawn based on race. Justice Thomas, who wrote the opinion today, said, “African-Americans often are very loyal Democrats.” And that’s a legitimate reason for drawing a district to, try to get in as many Democrats as possible.

PHIL PONCE: So as long as the predominant factor might be politics -

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Something other than race.

PHIL PONCE: — Democrat allegiance as opposed to race than it might be okay.


PHIL PONCE: And the impact of this case?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: The impact of this case means that lower courts now will have to look at these districts a little more closely. They can’t just toss them out if the evidence is in dispute. And it also could give some more guidance to legislators who are trying to draw these districts, particularly after the next election in the 2000 Census.

PHIL PONCE: Because after the 2000 Census there will be reapportionment, in other words, states might get different shares of how many congressional districts they’re entitled to, soy they’ll have to go through this exercise.

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Right. And they’ll redraw those districts all over again. That’s what redistricting is all about.

PHIL PONCE: Jan Crawford Greenberg, thank you very much.