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Justices Order Review of Texas’ Political Map

Times Staff Writers

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

In a one-line order, the justices told a lower court to reconsider whether the plan, the handiwork of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), goes so far as to be 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 also was a partial victory for the Democrats, as well as for black and Latino advocates who say DeLay’s plan has deprived them of fair and equal representation in Congress.

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.”

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After each census, states redraw their electoral districts to take account of shifts in population. The congressional delegation in Texas is currently evenly divided, with each party controlling 16 seats.

When the GOP captured control of the Texas Legislature in 2002, Delay pressed lawmakers in Austin to draw the state’s districts for a second time to bolster the slim Republican majority in Washington. As a result, Republicans are expected to control as many as 22 Texas seats after the Nov. 2 election. 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 Monday’s order from the high court 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.

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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,” Richter said. “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.

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The majority party in many states draws districts to obtain the maximum benefit. In Pennsylvania, for example, Republicans took 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 Supreme Court took up a challenge to decide whether this “partisan gerrymander” violated the Constitution.

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.”

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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’s guarantee of fair treatment, 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 redistricting. 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 chose to do neither. Instead, they vacated the ruling affirming the Texas plan and sent the cases back “for further consideration in light of” the Pennsylvania ruling.

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Election law experts said they were puzzled by this result.

The Pennsylvania ruling “raises a lot of questions, but Justice Kennedy is pivotal and his opinion is obscure,” said UCLA law professor Daniel Lowenstein.

If nothing else, Monday’s ruling gives the Democrats’ lawyers another chance to try to prove that the GOP gerrymandering is unfair.

“Texas saw the most blatantly partisan gerrymander ever,” said Loyola law professor Richard Hasen. But he too was skeptical that the challengers would prevail in court.

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“It all comes down to Justice Kennedy,” he said, “and he has not made a decision yet.”

Savage reported from Washington and Gold from Houston.


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