WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court rejected a challenge to the way Houston elects nine of its 14 city council members, turning away arguments that the system was motivated by racial considerations.
The decision on Monday came a month after the court ruled, 5-4, that a largely black congressional district can be constitutional if drawn to satisfy political rather than racial motives.
This time, without comment, the majority let stand rulings that upheld the redistricting completed in 1997 for the Houston council's nine at-large seats.
The court's only black justice, Clarence Thomas, took the somewhat unusual step of writing a formal dissent, saying he would have heard the case. It takes a minimum of four justices to agree to take on the issue.
The Houston ruling and last month's decision, involving a crazy-quilt North Carolina congressional district, provide a roadmap for drawing boundaries under the 2000 census.
With the census in mind, Thomas -- a dissenter in the North Carolina case -- said he would have heard the Houston case because the high court left a gap in its guidelines.
Thomas wrote that the court should address it now "because every jurisdiction in the country will have to accommodate the 2000 census data in the near future."
The gap centers on whether the reapportionment plan takes into account the total population of districts or the voting age population.
In Houston, "Such a determination might be dispositive of whether the city has violated," the Constitution's guarantee that everyone will have "equal protection" under the law.
A group of Houston residents contended the redistricting plan, adjusted in 1999 and likely to be changed again in 2001, gave too much political clout to minority voters, specifically blacks and Hispanics.
Their appeal said they deserve to have their allegations heard by a jury.
"The failure to even permit a trial on a map so distorted and with substantial evidence of race-based motivation illustrates that courts below are confused as to the parameters of race-based districting which will be allowed," the appeal said.
In response, lawyers for Houston urged the justices to reject the appeal. They said a federal trial judge correctly threw out the case and that the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals correctly upheld the dismissal.
In its ruling last March, a three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit court called the case "extremely close and difficult" but concluded that no jury trial was necessary.
Since Houston began using single-member districts in 1979, there have been at least two majority-black districts and one majority-Hispanic district. The 1997 map maintained that tradition and was challenged as unconstitutional the day it took effect.
The challengers alleged that city officials violated the constitutionally required one-person, one-vote doctrine by creating white-majority districts with significantly more residents than in some minority districts, thereby devaluing the votes of the white-majority district residents.
The case is Chen v. Houston, 99-1946.