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TOP COURT TO DECIDE VOTING-RIGHTS CASE

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The Supreme Court set the stage Friday for a key decision on voting rights and the government's power - at the federal, state and local levels - to give minorities more political clout.

The court said it will decide by July whether Louisiana lawmakers acted unlawfully when they created a black-majority congressional district, described by a lower court as "bizarre and irregular" in shape.In its ruling last July, a three-judge federal court relied heavily on a 1993 Supreme Court decision in a North Carolina case. In it, the justices ruled for the first time that election districts designed to benefit racial minorities can violate voters' equal-protection rights.

A decision in the Louisiana case could resolve conflicting lower-court interpretations of just what the 1993 decision allows and prohibits.

Pending before the justices are similar congressional redistricting disputes from Georgia, North Carolina and Texas. Friday's action did not preclude the possibility that the court will grant review to one or more of those cases and study them along with the Louisiana case.

A Florida redistricting fight is making its way through lower federal courts.

The Louisiana case has been watched closely by civil rights lawyers.

Laughlin McDonald of the American Civil Liberties Union said that under the three-judge court's rationale, "State legislatures and city and county governments that have minority-majority districts would also be subject to challenge."

The Clinton administration and Louisiana officials, in separate appeals, are urging the justices to uphold the 1994 map drawn for the congressional district now served by Rep. Cleo Fields, a black Democrat.

A three-judge federal court in Shreveport, La., last July struck down the district as unlawfully drawn, and substituted its own - one that would have put Fields in a white-majority district.