High court to review '03 Texas redistricting

Plan DeLay engineered boosted Republicans' fortunes


WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court announced yesterday that it would hear a constitutional challenge to the Texas redistricting plan engineered by Rep. Tom DeLay, the former House majority leader, and consider reining in the most extreme forms of partisan gerrymandering.

The challengers say a "purely partisan" move to redraw districts in mid-decade and to rig the results to favor the majority violates the Constitution because it deprives some voters of fair representation.

In the past, the high court has rejected such challenges, concluding it is impossible to separate partisan politics from the drawing of electoral districts.

The court's surprise move to hear the Texas case could spell trouble for the Republicans who have controlled the House for a decade.

Two years ago, Republicans picked up six extra seats in the House of Representatives after the Republican-controlled Texas Legislature redrew its congressional districts with the aim of defeating Democrats. That change helped the GOP tighten its grip on the House.

The justices said they would take up the legal challenge brought by Democrats and minority voters in the spring and rule by the end of June. If they were to strike down DeLay's plan as unconstitutional, it could force political boundary changes in time for the 2006 congressional elections.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, called the Supreme Court's action "a hopeful sign that the voting rights of millions of minorities will be restored." She referred to complaints that DeLay's plan diluted the voting power of blacks and Latinos by shifting them into other districts.

Kevin Madden, a spokesman for DeLay, a Texas Republican, pointed out that the Justice Department and a lower court had upheld the redistricting plan adopted in 2003. He also said the redrawn map reflected the GOP's growing strength in the nation's second-largest state.

"A history of gerrymandering efforts by Democrats in Texas had resulted in an unfair representation of Texas voters," Madden said.

Partisan gerrymandering is as old as the nation, a divided Supreme Court said last year when it upheld a Pennsylvania plan that strengthened the GOP hand in 12 of the state's 19 congressional districts. The state's voters were roughly split between Republicans and Democrats.

In a 5-4 decision, the court rejected a challenge to the Pennsylvania plan. Justice Antonin Scalia, writing the lead opinion, said redistricting is the business of politicians, not judges.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy cast the deciding vote, but did so tentatively. He said partisan gerrymandering might be so extreme as to be unconstitutional if it deprives the minority of fair representation.

The four liberal justices said partisan gerrymandering should be struck down if it allows the majority to rig elections in its favor.

The term "gerrymandering" dates to 1812, when Massachusetts Gov. Eldridge Gerry drew a salamander-shaped district to benefit his party.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Democrats used creative line-drawing in several states to maintain their majority in the House. More recently, Republicans have done the same to give their candidates a comfortable majority when running for re-election.

Typically, states redraw their electoral districts each decade using new census data. Since populations shift, districts must be redrawn so they are roughly equal in size.

Texas has been growing, giving it more seats in the House of Representatives. After the 2000 census, it was given two more seats, raising its total to 32. However, the Texas Legislature was divided. Democrats controlled the state House in Austin, while Republicans controlled the Senate.

The two sides were unable to agree on a new map of the districts, so a panel of three judges redrew the districts. Under this new map, 20 districts leaned Republican, while 12 leaned in favor of Democrats.

Nonetheless, 17 Democrats won election in the fall of 2002, along with 15 Republicans. The winning Democrats were long-serving incumbents who prevailed because they won some votes from voters who leaned toward Republicans.

But during that same election, Republicans won control of the state House, giving them control of all parts of the state government. DeLay urged the state Legislature to redraw its districts again to knock out six incumbent Democrats.

His plan worked. The redrawn map was used in the 2004 elections, 8 million Texans were moved to new districts, and the six targeted Democrats were ousted. The GOP won 21 of the 32 seats. The plan concentrated Democratic voters in fewer districts, but it also led to the election of one more black member of Congress.

David Savage writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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