The 5-4 decision, with conservative justices in the
majority, could make it harder for Democrats in the South to draw friendly
Democrats have sought to establish districts in which
blacks, though not a majority, still were numerous enough to determine the
outcome of elections with the help of small numbers of like-minded white
voters. Those districts could be challenged under Monday's decision.
Civil rights groups said the ruling could dilute the voting
strength of minorities by resulting in more districts with minorities
constituting less than half the population.
The ruling involved a North Carolina House of
Representatives district 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.
In 2007, the North Carolina Supreme Court struck down the
district, saying the Voting Rights Act applies only to districts with a
numerical majority of minority voters.
The Supreme Court upheld the state court's decision.
Justices declined to expand protections of the landmark
civil rights law to apply to districts where the minority population is less
than 50 percent of the total, but strong enough to effectively determine the
outcome of elections.
Announcing the court's judgment, Justice Anthony Kennedy
said requiring minorities to represent more than half the population
"draws clear lines for courts and legislatures alike. The same cannot be
said of a less exacting standard," according to the Associated Press.
Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito signed
onto Kennedy's opinion. Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas agreed with
the outcome of the case.
The four liberal justices dissented. A district like the one
in North Carolina should be protected by federal law "so long as a
cohesive minority population is large enough to elect its chosen candidate when
combined with a reliable number of crossover voters from an otherwise polarized
majority," Justice David Souter wrote for himself and Justices Stephen
Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and John Paul Stevens.
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.
In a separate election-related case, the court let stand an
appeals court decision that invalidated state laws regulating the ways
independent presidential candidates can get on state ballots.
Arizona, joined by 13 other states, asked the court to hear
its challenge to a ruling throwing out its residency requirement for petition
circulators and a June deadline for submitting signatures for independent
candidates in the November presidential elections.
Independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader sued and won
a favorable ruling from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.
Also on Monday, the court turned away pleas by New York City
and gun violence victims to hold the firearms industry responsible for selling
guns that could end up in illegal markets.
The justices' decision ends lawsuits first filed in 2000.
The city's lawsuit asked for no monetary damages. It had sought a court order
for gun makers to more closely monitor those dealers who frequently sell guns
later used to commit crimes.