High court orders review of Texas redistricting plan

Map favoring Republicans for gains in Congress gets sent back to lower court

October 19, 2004|By David G. Savage and Scott Gold | David G. Savage and Scott Gold,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - Just two weeks before America's voters are expected to leave Republicans in control of the House of Representatives, the Supreme Court revived a legal challenge to an unusual redistricting plan in Texas that could shift six House seats to the GOP.

In a one-line order yesterday, the justices told a lower court to reconsider whether the plan, the handiwork of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas, is unconstitutional.

The ruling came too late to affect next month's races, but it could lead to a new congressional district map for the 2006 elections. It was a partial victory for the Democrats and for black and Hispanic advocates who say DeLay's plan has deprived them of fair and equal representation.

Paul M. Smith, a Washington lawyer who has led challenges to partisan redistricting in Pennsylvania and Texas, called the court's action "heartening." DeLay and the Republicans redrew the state's 32 congressional districts last year, Smith said, "to maximize Republican advantage" in violation of the Constitution's guarantee of "equal protection of the laws."

After each census, states redraw their electoral districts to account for shifts in population. In Texas, voters elected 16 Republicans and 16 Democrats to the House in 2002.

But after the Republicans captured control of the Texas Legislature that year, DeLay pressed state lawmakers to redraw the districts to bolster the slim Republican majority in the U.S. House. As a result, Republicans are expected to win as many as 22 Texas seats Nov. 2. Among the senior Democrats who now find themselves in predominantly Republican districts are Reps. Martin Frost and Charles W. Stenholm.

In a prepared statement, DeLay dismissed the high court's order as a "highly technical decision that suggests no problem with the existing map."

Two weeks ago, the House Ethics Committee rebuked DeLay for involving a federal agency in the redistricting fight. And three of his close political allies were indicted on charges of directing illegal corporate campaign contributions to candidates for state office.

Since 1980, Texas has shifted from being a Democratic state to one in which Republicans control all the branches of government. The new electoral map "reflects the fact that Texas is an increasingly Republican state," DeLay said.

Bob Richter, a spokesman for Texas' Republican House speaker, Tom Craddick, acknowledged that politics had everything to do with the new maps. When the Democrats were in charge, they drew district lines that favored their party, he said:

"You take your medicine when you are out of power. Redistricting is the most political thing that the Legislature does."

The Supreme Court has been troubled by the specter of "rigged" congressional elections, but it has been divided over whether there is a legal solution.

The majority party in many states draws districts to obtain the maximum benefit. In Pennsylvania, for example, Republicans captured control of the state Legislature in 2000 and arranged district lines to give the GOP a 12-7 majority in its congressional delegation.

Last year, the justices upheld the Pennsylvania map. The court's four-member conservative bloc, led by Justice Antonin Scalia, ruled that judges had no authority to second-guess these highly political decisions.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, in a concurring opinion, rejected the challenge to Pennsylvania's plan but left the door open for the court to consider whether partisanship goes so far as to deny voters "the rights of fair and effective representation."

The four liberal justices, led by John Paul Stevens, said the court should have struck down the Pennsylvania plan. States that "discriminate against a political minority for the sole and unadorned purpose of maximizing the power of the majority plainly violate" the Constitution, he wrote.

The Texas redistricting plan was challenged in a federal court there just before the Supreme Court ruled in the Pennsylvania case. The judges in Texas essentially agreed with Scalia's view that the Constitution does not limit political gerrymandering. They declined to delay next month's congressional elections in Texas, and the Supreme Court has never voided an election after the fact.

Several appeals were filed directly with the high court. Under the Voting Rights Act, the court must issue a ruling either to affirm or to reverse the ruling of the lower court. Either result requires a vote of five justices.

In this instance, the justices instead vacated the ruling affirming the Texas plan and sent the cases back "for further consideration in light of" the Pennsylvania ruling.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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