The Supreme Court (search) on Thursday gave states some leeway in drawing political boundaries in areas with heavy black populations, a ruling that likely helps Democrats.
The Bush administration had urged the court to rule otherwise.
In a 5-4 ruling, the justices said lower courts reviewing redistricting cases should consider all factors and not focus solely on whether minorities can elect a minority candidate.
• Raw Data: Georgia v. Ashcroft (PDF)
A lower court had ruled that Georgia (search) improperly drew its election districts after the 2000 census, spreading black voters into more districts in an attempt to help Democrats win more offices. Justices threw out that decision and ordered more consideration of the lines.
The ruling only affects states that are subject to the 1965 Voting Rights Act (search) because of past discrimination. The act discourages dilution of minority voting strength.
Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, writing for the majority, said that the law "as properly interpreted, should encourage the transition to a society where race no longer matters: a society where integration and color-blindness are not just qualities to be proud of, but are simple facts of life."
States and local governments must draw boundaries every 10 years if needed to reflect population changes. At issue in Georgia are several state Senate districts that lost black voters. Many black leaders supported the plan to reduce the number of minority voters in the heavily black districts, because shifting some minority voters to neighboring districts would help Democrats beat Republicans.
In a dissent, Justice David H. Souter and the other more liberal members of the court said that the court's new standard would put more politics into redistricting, and "there will simply be greater opportunity to reduce minority voting strength in the guise of obtaining party advantage."
The case almost was not resolved by the high court. Gov. Sonny Perdue, who became Georgia's first GOP governor in 130 years in the last election, had tried to block the appeal. A state court ruling on the governor's authority to stop litigation is pending.
The case was remarkable because of its unusual politics. The Bush administration, along with Perdue, contended that the Democratic-controlled Legislature went too far in reducing minority voting strength in those heavily black districts.
The case is Georgia v. Ashcroft, 02-182.