Political maneuvers

December 15, 2005

Stepping into another political minefield, the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to consider the bizarre Texas redistricting case that has come to symbolize the raw abuse of power that sustains legislative incumbency. It's one of the most politically charged cases to come before the court since the 2000 presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore. The Texas controversy has already cost Rep. Tom DeLay his position as House majority leader, and we can only hope that the high court might bring sense and reason to the bold actions used by both parties to protect incumbents.

Although redistricting normally occurs in 10-year cycles, Texas Republicans were so eager in 2003 to shore up their control of the House that they engineered a mid-decade redistricting that resulted in a gain of six Republican seats. The unusual maneuver, led by Mr. DeLay, came under immediate fire and has resulted in a legal quagmire. Mr. DeLay has been indicted on charges of illegally steering campaign money in 2002 to GOP state legislators who redrew the map. He was forced to resign as House majority leader, although he has retained his House seat.

Keeping incumbents cozy in their congressional and state legislative seats has become the name of the game, with Republicans and Democrats emboldened to manipulate maps in strange redrawings in order to maintain their political advantage. In 2004, the high court declined to interfere with legislative mapmaking, unable to reach a consensus on what was excessive political gerrymandering.

What might make a difference in the current case are challenges that the Texas plan diluted minority rights in violation of the Voting Rights Act and that it implicated the principle of one person, one vote by failing to take account of updated census data reflecting the addition of more than 1 million people, most of whom were Latinos, who came to the state between 2000 and 2003. In addition, there are changes on the bench, as John G. Roberts Jr. has taken over as chief justice and Samuel A. Alito Jr. might be approved to replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor by the time expedited oral arguments are heard in March.

The Texas fiasco was a classic case of overreaching, and it could well mark a turning point in voters' determination to take matters back into their own hands. The Supreme Court may be able to pave the way. It would be disappointing if the court refused to weigh in on a maneuver that stinks as much as this one does.

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