Colo. GOP redistricting is thrown out by court

Map reverts to version drawn by judge, more favorable to Democrats

December 02, 2003|By David Kelly | David Kelly,LOS ANGELES TIMES

DENVER - In a move that Democrats hope will narrow or even shift the balance of political power nationwide, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled yesterday that congressional districts crafted by state Republicans this year are unconstitutional.

The 5-2 decision disrupts Republicans' plans to strengthen their hold on Colorado's congressional delegation and could bode ill for a similar redistricting overhaul in Texas also before the courts, experts said.

"This has major implications because Colorado now has two of the most competitive districts in the country," said Chris Gates, the Democratic state party chairman. "The [national] Democratic Party intends to make Colorado a battleground state. You are going to see more money and more resources poured in here, with higher-level candidates."

Republicans now hold five of the state's seven congressional seats.

The court ruling comes as redistricting plans are being contested in Texas and, next week, argued before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Earlier this year, Republicans mounted an all-out drive in Colorado and Texas to redraw congressional district boundaries in an attempt to gain more seats in next year's elections.

In both states, courts had enacted redistricting plans after divided state legislatures failed to. In both states, Republicans moved to set aside the courts' maps and pass legislatively drawn maps, arguing that it was the legislators' duty to determine congressional districts.

The decisions, observers say, will not only help determine the makeup of Congress but also set a precedent for how much the courts are willing to intervene in the legislative process.

"This really goes to who makes the law, unelected judges or elected representatives," said Colorado state Senate President John Andrews, a Republican.

If their plans proved successful, Republicans stood to protect five congressional seats they hold in Colorado and gain up to six more seats in Texas.

But in ruling that Colorado's General Assembly "relinquished its authority to redistrict until after the 2010 census" because it failed to act in a timely way, Colorado's highest court reinstated the court-ordered plan that is less favorable to Republicans.

Redistricting must occur during a "constitutional window" after a census and before the first general election after that census, the court said.

Ted Halaby, chairman of the Colorado Republican Party, condemned yesterday's decision as an "incredible stretch" by the court and said it likely would be appealed. He also said most of the judges were Democratic appointees, which likely influenced their decision.

"The national implications are huge, but the decision wasn't surprising," he said. "This is Round One. We will very likely appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court."

House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland said the decision was an "enormous rebuke" to the Colorado Republican Party.

"Republicans have demonstrated time and again that they will seize power when they can and break rules if that's what it takes to win," he said.

Democrats successfully argued that redistricting already had occurred in 2002, when a federal judge in Denver drew up congressional boundaries after a divided General Assembly couldn't agree on what they should be.

Republicans said the judge's plan was only temporary, until the Legislature could create its own districts. When they won control of the assembly, Republicans carved up districts largely to benefit GOP candidates. Their map became law in May.

In October, Texas Republicans also threw out a court-ordered redistricting plan for one of their own, one that critics said was designed to win them seven seats.

That plan has been challenged in the courts.

The spate of contested redistricting plans has even reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which is expected to hear a Pennsylvania redistricting case next week - its first in 15 years.

Legal observers doubt the Supreme Court will overturn the Colorado decision because it is based on the state's Constitution, which the court usually respects.

Still, yesterday's ruling gave some pause.

"I worry about the courts getting too involved in these redistricting fights," said Nathaniel Persily, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania who often is hired to redraw congressional districts.

The Chicago Tribune contributed to this article.

The Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times are Tribune Publishing newspapers.

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