SOMETIME in the next year, the U.S. Supreme Court needs to figure out a way to extricate itself - and legislatures all over the country - from a huge political mess.

It is a mess that the court itself all but created. In 1986, the justices reinterpreted the federal Voting Rights Act to essentially require the stuffing of black and Hispanic citizens all over the country into redrawn districts created for the sole purpose of clustering minority votes and electing the largest possible number of candidates of color.In 1993, after it had become clear that this decision has spawned a round of blatant racial gerrymandering that embarrassed even many civil rights advocates, the court pulled back a bit.

It declared that packing minorities into districts bore "an uncomfortable resemblance to political apartheid," and that the states should stop doing it, or at least hold off pending further advice.

That further advice may be forthcoming in the next six months or so; on Dec. 9, the court agreed to review a case involving Louisiana's efforts to create majority-black congressional districts.

For the time being, however, nobody in America is quite sure what racial fairness is supposed to mean when it comes to drawing districts.

We are stuck with racially contrived constituencies beyond the imagination or capacity of any of the Southern white mapmakers of a generation ago - districts that twist bizarrely back and forth, cutting through counties and cities without regard to community or tradition, joining far-flung population clusters contiguous only by the width of a highway or a stream or a set of railroad tracks.

Is this what the Voting Rights Act was supposed to accomplish? What do Supreme Court justices think about when they impose these sorts of mandates? Do they have any sensitivity to politics at all?

Maybe we should start with the last question first. For most of this country's history, a large proportion of Supreme Court justices were not only sensitive to politics, they were politicians themselves.

As recently as the mid-1950s, the court included a former governor of California (Earl Warren), a former senator from Alabama (Hugo Black) and one justice who had been a U.S. senator, a mayor and a state legislator (Harold Burton).

For the past 23 years, the court has not had more than one justice at any given time with even a day's experience in elective office at any level,

On the present-day Supreme Court, when someone proposes that the way to bring about racial fairness is to compel the creation of bizarrely gerrymandered districts, there is no Hugo Black or Earl Warren to say: "Wait a minute. I know how to redistrict a legislature. I used to do that. You can't just command legislatures to stuff voters into black-majority districts. It will never work."

The one member of the current court who seems most interested in leading that transformation is, appropriately enough, the only one of the bunch who has held elective office: the former majority leader of the Arizona Senate, Sandra Day O'Connor.

It was O'Connor, writing for the court in 1993 in the case of Shaw vs. Reno, who raised the issue of why the Supreme Court had ever forced the states into the racial gerrymandering business in the first place.

We want our Supreme Court justices to be perched somewhere above politics; that is why we appoint them to office and leave them there for life. But we shouldn't want them to be too far above it, or too disdainful of the people who have to practice it on a day-to-day basis.

In the end, the toughest political problems are always going to be ones the politicians have to solve on their own. Reform by coercion is a dangerous strategy in the long run.