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Court rules against minority districts

Dividing 5-4, the Supreme Court ruled on Monday that federal voting rights law does not require the creation of a new legislative district when that would include a racial minority group that has less than 50 percent of the population, as a remedy when minority voters’ rights have been diluted.  Only when a group of minority voters would form a majority in a single-member district must it be created as a remedy under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Court ruled in Bartlett v. Strickland (07-689).

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy’s opinion decided the case, but spoke for only three of the Court’s members; he was joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., and Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr.  Justice Clarence Thomas, joined by Justice Antonin Scalia, supported only the result, arguing that “vote dilution” claims of any kind simply are not allowed under the 1965 law.

Kennedy’s plurality opinion did say that, if state legislatures wished to create a district when a minority group would have less than a 50 percent majority, federal law does not forbid that.  That is usually considered a “crossover district” because minorities, while not having a majority, are able to attract enough white voters’ support to elect their preferred candidates.

Still, Kennedy went on, the Court was not saying that legislatures could pass a law that would “entrench” a majority district in which minorities dominate; that would raise constitutional problems of its own, the opinion said.

The decision was one of four the Court released on Monday before beginning a two-week recess. Here in summary are the outcomes in the other cases:

** By a 7-2 vote, the Court ruled that a state is not responsible for the delays in getting a criminal case to a trial, if those delays are the result of tactics or omissions by public defender lawyers.  Just because a court-appointed lawyer is from a public defender’s office, the Court said, does not make those attorneys government actors, as such, for whom the state is responsible for their tactical choices.  Assigned counsel’s blame for delays are to be attributed to the defense, not the state — unless there is a complete breakdown in the public defender system, the Court decided in Vermont v. Brillon (08-88).  Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the Court.

** Over four partial dissenting votes, the Court ruled that a firm seeking to compel arbitration of a dispute may take the case to a federal District Court only if the underlying controversy could have been litigated in federal court.  A federal court has no jurisdiction, Justice Ginsburg wrote for the Court, to order arbitration of “a slice of a controversy when the controversy as a whole” would be beyond its reach.  The ruling came in a dispute over a claimed failure of a consumer to pay a credit card balance (Vaden v. Discover Bank, 07-773).

** Ruling unanimously, the Court decided that the $40 per day fee for witnesses in regular federal court proceedings also applies when witnesses are summoned to appear in a case under the Court’s Original jurisdiction. The ruling, written by Justice Alito, rejected a challenge by the state of Kansas to a special master’s fee decision in a long-running dispute with Colorado over water rights in the Arkansas River. (The case is Kansas v. Colorado, 105 Original.)