The 5-4 ruling was the fourth time that the high court has looked at North Carolina's 12th district. The case is a follow-up to a landmark 1993 decision that racially drawn districts may violate the rights of white voters.
"The evidence...does not show that racial considerations predominated in the drawing of District 12's boundaries," Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote for the court. "That is because race in this case correlates closely with political behavior."
Those who challenged the district have "not successfully shown that race, rather than politics, predominantly accounts for the result," Breyer wrote.
A lower court ruling that said the district was unconstitutionally based on race was based on "clearly erroneous" findings, Breyer said.
His opinion was joined by Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
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Dissenting were Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy and Clarence Thomas.
Writing for the four, Thomas said the lower court ruling that the district was unlawfully based on race was not clearly erroneous and should not be overturned.
The district is represented by Democrat Mel Watt, one of two blacks elected to Congress in 1992 from a state that had not sent a black to Washington since 1901.
North Carolina had argued that the district's latest boundaries were dictated by politics, not race. Lawyers for the state argued that the North Carolina Legislature wanted to ensure the district was safely Democratic, to maintain an even split between Republicans and Democrats in the state's congressional delegation.
The 12th includes the cities of Charlotte, Winston-Salem and Greensboro, urban areas that have large black populations and tend to vote Democratic.
Disputes over the district have led to three previous Supreme Court rulings, starting with a 1993 decision that said voting districts designed to help minorities can be invalidated if they violate white voters' rights.
In 1996, the Supreme Court declared that an earlier version of the district, which had a 57 percent majority of blacks among registered voters, was unlawfully based on race.
State lawmakers redrew the district in 1997, creating one 71 miles long in which blacks comprised 46 percent of registered voters. A federal court ruled it unconstitutional in 1998, and the primaries were delayed so the Legislature could go back to the drawing table.
The Supreme Court reversed that ruling in 1999, saying the lower court wrongly decided the case without first holding a trial.
In arch 2000, the three-judge panel again ruled the 12th District unlawful, saying legislators "utilized race as the predominant factor in drawing the district." The state did not offer compelling reasons to justify such use of race, the three-judge court said. It concluded that the district was "an impermissible and unconstitutional racial gerrymander."
On Wednesday, the Supreme Court said the lower court was wrong.
Breyer wrote that after a detailed review of the three-judge panel's findings, "that review leaves us with the definite and firm conviction that the district court's key findings are mistaken." He said the lower court wrongly considered evidence of voting registration rather than voting behavior.
In cases in which race correlates with political affiliation, Breyer added, those who attack a voting district must show "that the legislature could have achieved its legitimate political objectives in alternative ways that are comparably consistent with traditional districting principles."
Thomas wrote in dissent that the lower court found evidence "demonstrating that race was foremost on the legislative agenda."
While the case wound through the courts, the 2000 Census came and went.
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