The U.S. Supreme Court is set to make a decision on an important matter under the Voting Rights Act of 1965, using a redistricting case involving a Louisiana school board. The issue at hand is whether voting districts that are drawn with bias can be rejected, even if they do not disadvantage minority voters more than before. This will be the second time that the high court reviews the redistricting of the Bossier Parish school board, which in 1992 had never elected a black member. However, since then, three African-Americans have been elected to the board.
The Bossier Parish school district, which has 19,000 students and is located in northwestern Louisiana, falls under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. This means that any changes in voting procedures, including redistricting plans, must be approved by the Department of Justice or a federal court. Section 5 covers nine Southern states and parts of several others that have a history of discriminatory voting practices. The Justice Department attempted to use its "preclearance" procedure to require the district to create two voting districts with majority-black populations for its 12-member school board. However, the board resisted, arguing that it had already received preclearance from the Justice Department for the redistricting plan used by the parish’s main governing body, known as the policy jury. The board also asserted that their plan could not have negatively affected black voters because no black board members had ever been elected. In 1995, the board’s plan was approved by a special three-judge U.S. District Court in Washington.
In 1997, the Supreme Court ruled on the Bossier Parish case in Reno v. Bossier Parish School Board. The court ruled 7-2 that the Justice Department cannot deny approval of voting changes in jurisdictions covered by Section 5 on the basis of whether the changes violate Section 2, which applies nationwide and prohibits any practices that would weaken minority voting power. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, writing for the majority, stated that the two sections of the voting-rights law were meant to address different issues and impose different obligations on the states. The court found that the federal district court had not properly considered whether the Bossier school board had enacted its 1992 plan with discriminatory intent, and thus sent the case back to the district court. The district court once again approved the school board’s plan, stating that the board had legitimate reasons for adopting it. The Justice Department, along with the local branch of the NAACP, appealed once again to the Supreme Court, arguing that the school board had adopted the redistricting plan to prevent any advancements in the political position of black individuals. The Justice Department urged the court to determine whether a redistricting plan in a jurisdiction covered by Section 5 can be denied if it was enacted with discriminatory intent, even if it does not harm minorities more than before.
On January 22, the justices accepted the appeal in Reno v. Bossier Parish School Board (Case No. 98-405). The Bossier school board attempted to argue against the appeal, noting that under the current voting lines with no majority-black districts, three African-Americans have been elected to the board, including one from a district that is only 21 percent black. The board argued that requiring two majority-black voting districts would be nonsensical and that redistricting would make it more difficult for a third black candidate to be elected. The case is set to be argued in April, with a decision expected by early summer.
In a separate ruling last week, the Supreme Court rejected the use of statistical-sampling methods in the 2000 U.S. Census for the purpose of apportioning representation in the U.S. House. However, the court stated in its 5-4 ruling in Department of Commerce v. U.S. House of Representatives (No. 98-404) that the federal Census Act of 1976 allows for, and may require, the use of such sampling for other purposes.
Census figures are crucial for allocating various federal funds to the states, including the distribution of Title I compensatory education funds.