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Friday February 23, 2001

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Charleston case watched as signal of Bush administration

By The Associated Press

CHARLESTON, S.C. - In the closing days of the Clinton administration, the U.S. Justice Department sued Charleston County in a case some say could become an early test of President Bush's commitment to civil rights.

The voting-rights lawsuit challenges the practice of electing members of the Charleston County Council from the county at large instead of from single-member districts. While 31 percent of the county's 221,000 registered voters are black, just one black is on the nine-member council.

The department argues that at-large voting dilutes the black vote. It wants a federal judge to order single-member districts for next year.

But Nelson Rivers, national field director for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, is skeptical about the new administration's commitment to the case.

"Now that John Ashcroft is the attorney general - the worst-case scenario for civil rights - we're not optimistic the Justice Department will pursue with any vigor the voting rights case," he said.

And while there may have been policy reasons for suing, there also was a chance to paint Bush into a corner, said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Governmental Studies at the University of Virginia.

"To withdraw this type of suit now would subject the new administration to criticism from African-American quarters," he said.

A Justice Department spokeswoman said only that the case is continuing.