The Supreme Court let stand an order scrapping at-large city council elections in Norfolk, Virginia's second largest city, because they discriminate against blacks.
The court also agreed Monday to resolve an industrywide dispute over when coal miners qualify for black lung disability benefits, and let stand a ruling that a prison system cannot force convicts to cut their hair if it would violate their religious practices.Returning from its first two-week recess of the term, the court disposed of more than 200 cases but agreed to hear only three, taking its most significant actions in cases where it refused to review a number of important lower court rulings.
The court refused to review a decision of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that the at-large format, used by Norfolk since 1918, lets the city's majority white population control the council's racial makeup in violation of the Voting Rights Acts of 1965.
The appeals court had ordered Norfolk, a city of more than 280,000 where 35 percent of the population is black, to replace its pres-ent system with elections based on wards to ensure blacks have a clear majority in voting for at least two of the seven seats. The city appealed to the high court.
The court's decision will not be felt in next week's elections because none of the seats is up for re-election this year. Two of the current council members are black.
"It's been a long battle," said James Gay, a former Norfolk NAACP president who filed the original 1983 suit against the city. "It proves that, in the end, justice does triumph."
The court agreed to resolve a dispute in the circuit courts over the standards to be met before a coal miner or his family qualifies for disability under the Black Lung Benefits Act.
The act established a federal program to provide benefits to coal miners and their families in the event of disability or death due to pneumoconiosis, or black lung disease, caused by inhaling coal dust.
But for nearly a decade, federal courts have disagreed over how a miner qualifies. The Justice Department says the court's interpretation could immediately affect up to 3,500 claims.
The court let stand a ruling that the New York State prison system cannot force new convicts to cut their hair if it would violate their religious practices.
The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals outlawed the prison system's haircut requirement as a violation of the religious rights of Rastafarian prisoners. Rastafarianism is a religion that teaches men should neither cut nor comb their hair.