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By David G. Savage, Tribune Washington Bureau (MCT)

A week after some of the South’s last white Democrats went down to defeat, the Supreme Court will hear a case of alleged racial gerrymandering Wednesday to decide whether Republican lawmakers violated the Constitution by packing more blacks into black-majority districts.

The Alabama case opens a new phase in a long-running dispute over when, if ever, lawmakers may draw district lines based on the race of the voters.

The tables have turned since the 1990s, when the court last focused on the issue. Then, black leaders and civil rights advocates argued in favor of race-based districts as a means of electing new black representatives to Congress and to state legislatures. The court’s conservatives were mostly skeptical of these race-based districts.

But with a push from the Justice Department and the Voting Rights Act, Southern states drew new districts that helped bring a wave of African Americans into legislatures. By this measure, Alabama can claim success. About one-fourth of its voters are black, and black Democrats hold about one-fourth of the seats in the state House and Senate.

Their political power is minimal, however, since control rests in the hands of white Republicans. Now, black lawmakers and Alabama Democrats are arguing that states under Republican control have gone too far and concentrated too many blacks into black-majority districts. They say these “racial quotas” are a new form of segregation, and they urged the high court to rein in this overuse of race in redistricting.

For their part, Alabama’s lawyers say the state has followed the guidelines set out by the Justice Department and strengthened the majority-black districts.

AFP Photo/Mark Wilson

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