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Groups Welcome High Court Ruling Questioning Racial Gerrymandering

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Jewish groups welcomed the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision Monday that questioned the constitutionality of creating legislative districts designed to ensure the election of minority representatives.

Many in the Jewish community have criticized redistricting plans around the country that have been drawn solely in recent years along racial lines.

“All Jewish organizations raise serious questions about compromising the color-blind nature of the Constitution,” said Jerome Chanes, co-director for domestic concerns at the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council.

The court’s 5-4 ruling supported that critique. It sided with five white voters in North Carolina who challenged a voting plan in their state that created a black district by stringing together a thin ribbon of black populations stretched out over 160 miles.

“Racial classifications of any sort pose the risk of lasting harm to our society,” Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote for the majority.

“Racial classifications with respect to voting carry particular dangers. Racial gerrymandering, even for remedial purposes, may balkanize us into competing factions,” she wrote.

The court ruled that the legitimacy of the district in question, North Carolina’s 12th, would have to be judged by a lower court based on whether it met “traditional districting principles.”

These include keeping districts compact, contiguous and within existing political subdivisions.

In the course of reapportioning districts following the 1990 National Census, minority districts were designed with often bizarre shapes. Some white legislators around the country found themselves without constituencies in the 1992 elections and either dropped out or lost re-election bids.

While the effects of this phenomenon have yet to be felt keenly within the Jewish community, the potential could be dramatic.

“Very few seats supported by Jews were districted out. Impact so far has been very small, though the potential impact is great,” said Chanes.

AGGRAVATES RACIAL POLARIZATION

In May, NJCRAC convened a consultation of community relations councils and national agency representatives on the implications of reapportionment for the Jewish community.

Participants decided to hold off on defining their position on this complex issue until they had more time to investigate it. They plan to reconvene in the early fall.

The consultation also addressed the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which was at issue in the case decided this week, Shaw vs. Reno. The act has often been used to protect the rights of minority voters in the face of gerrymandering by whites.

But, O’Connor wrote in her opinion, “it is unsettling how closely the North Carolina plan resembles the most egregious racial gerrymanders of the past.”

The act became a focal point in the failed nomination of Lani Guinier to become chief of the Justice Department’s civil rights division.

Guinier’s controversial views on the law were questioned by some Jewish groups, who feared she would support even more radical efforts to create minority districts.

The only Jewish group to take a position in the North Carolina case was the American Jewish Congress, which submitted a friend-of-the-court brief urging the court to remand the case back to the district court.

Robert Lifton, president of AJCongress, said the group was “gratified” by the court’s decision.

AJCongress “has long supported the Voting Rights Act as well as other efforts to guarantee all citizens, regardless of race, the right to fully participate in the electoral process.

“We have nevertheless been increasingly troubled by recent reapportionment efforts which, in an attempt to increase minority participation in the political process, solely employ racial considerations in drawing district lines to the exclusion of all other factors,” he said in a statement.

“We are convinced that designing districts to reinforce racial voting patterns and making these the central organizing feature of political affairs inevitably aggravates the polarization of the races and generates racial and religious antagonisms — damaging to our multiracial, multiethnic society.”

EFFECT FELT IN NEW YORK, FLORIDA

Some Jewish communities have already felt the effects of reapportionment along racial lines.

The effect in New York was perhaps the most dramatic, as far as the Jewish community was concerned.

Former veteran U.S. Rep. Stephen Solarz, a Democrat who had long represented a predominantly Jewish area in Brooklyn, was effectively drawn out of a district in last year’s election.

His district was eviscerated in order to create an awkwardly shaped district that wends its way through three counties to virtually ensure the election of a Latino representative.

Solarz decided to battle several Latino candidates in the Democratic primary, but eventually lost to Nydia Velasquez.

New York City Councilwoman Susan Alter, an Orthodox Jew, had her district boundary moved two blocks in an effort to increase the probability of a minority candidate winning election, a member of the New York Districting Commission admitted at the time.

Nonetheless, Alter soundly beat out her opponents in a 1991 election — seven African American and Caribbean American candidates in a district dominated by those communities.

In Chicago, reapportionment did not seriously affect the ability of the city’s Jews to elect a congressional representative.

Two seats in the House of Representatives were lost because of population shifts and a new district was carved out to provide for Latino representation.

But the reapportionment “did not lead to the loss of seats traditionally elected by the Jewish community, and the community was pleased by the result,” said Michael Kotzin, director of the city’s Jewish Community Relations Council.

In Florida, the redistricting had an impact on candidates supported by the Jewish community.

In one new district, drawn 90 miles long and no more than two or three miles wide, from Miami’s South Beach to northern Palm Beach County, Gwen Margolis, the Democratic Jewish candidate, was routed by E. Clay Shaw Jr., a conservative Republican.

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