WASHINGTON - A Supreme Court increasingly hostile to election districts drawn to maximize black candidates' success is using cases from Georgia and Louisiana to revisit the thorny subject of racial politics.
After hearing arguments today, the nation's highest court must judge the validity of a Georgia congressional map that features just one majority-black district.
And in a separate case, the justices are refereeing a voting-rights dispute spawned by school board elections in Bossier Parish, La.
Rulings in both cases, expected by July, may clarify just how far the court will let state legislators and local officials nationwide go to preserve or enhance the voting clout of racial and ethnic minorities.
Subdued argument sessions in the stately courtroom often are in stark contrast to the deep emotions the underlying disputes evoke. Wade Henderson, legal director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, has accused the court of working to bring about "the resegregation of American electoral democracy."
The Georgia case is making its second Supreme Court appearance. The justices in 1995 struck down the redistricting plan under which three black Democrats won seats in the state's 11-member congressional delegation.
The justices ruled that districts drawn mainly to boost blacks' voting power almost always are unlawful.
Georgia legislators then came up with a redistricting plan that featured two black-majority districts, but a three-judge federal court declared that plan, too, the product of unlawful racial gerrymandering.
The Clinton administration and minority-rights activists are urging the justices to rule that the three-judge court went too far, and unlawfully deprived black voters of a second black-majority congressional district.
But the two incumbent black members of Congress forced to seek re-election from white-majority districts both won, perhaps making the administration's arguments more difficult.
Reps. Sanford Bishop of Albany and Cynthia McKinney of Lithonia both won nearly 95 percent of the black vote in their respective districts, but neither could have won without significant white support.
"Cynthia won because she was an incumbent, and she got to be an incumbent because she ran as a minority in a majority-minority district," said Laughlin McDonald, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union.
The Louisiana case focuses on the standard Justice Department lawyers or federal courts must apply when deciding whether proposed changes in district boundaries comply with the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
One part of the law says a proposed change cannot win the required Justice Department approval if it has a discriminatory purpose or effect.
Another part of the law is even more stringent. It bans any voting practice that has a discriminatory effect - no matter what its purpose.