- The Washington Times - Friday, February 22, 2002

Democrats charged yesterday that the Justice Department is holding up review of a Mississippi congressional-redistricting plan so that another plan more beneficial to Republicans can become law.
"We think it's clearly political. We think the Justice Department has politicized the Section 5 review process," said Rep. Bennie Thompson, Mississippi Democrat, who called the department's delay "a Republican effort to sabotage a state court-approved plan."
Last year, Democrats asked a county chancery judge to draw up a map, and the state submitted it to the Justice Department in December, asking for expedited review, as Mississippi and several other Southern states are required to do under federal voting-rights laws.
The Justice Department is still reviewing the local judge's plan, which must be approved by 5 p.m. Monday or be replaced by one more favorable to Republicans. The competing plan was created at the request of Republicans by a panel of federal judges, who set the deadline.
The Justice Department said letting a local judge draw the maps for the entire state is breaking new ground in Mississippi and needs extensive study. "The question is not merely whether the plan is fair to minority voters, but whether the process is fair to minority voters and all voters," said Dan Nelson, a spokesman for the department.
Democrats have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene and either prohibit the federal plan from taking effect or delay the candidacy-filing deadline. With Republicans holding a 222-211 edge in Congress, seats pitting incumbents against each other are critical to both parties in November's elections.
Mississippi is losing a seat in Congress due to slow population growth, reflected in the 2000 census. The Democrat-controlled Legislature, which has first crack at drawing a plan, was unable to agree to new maps, so the task fell to the courts.
Democrats turned to the county chancery court judge, who drew a plan that kept the state's one majority-minority district the one currently held by Mr. Thompson, who is black and created a new 37 percent black district that pits Rep. Ronnie Shows, a Democrat, against fellow incumbent Rep. Charles W. "Chip" Pickering Jr., a Republican.
Democrats argue that since Mr. Thompson's district is kept intact in the state judge's plan, the Justice Department should have quickly cleared the plan. But Republicans say the department is just following the rules.
"The bottom line is the state legislature and court did not get the job done by the filing deadline [and] the Justice Department must follow its own rules and regulations and precedent," Mr. Pickering said. "This is not about their discretion or anyone's effort to politicize the Justice Department's decision. They must follow their own rules, so they cannot approve it until all appeals are complete."
The panel's map preserves Mr. Thompson's district, but puts about 7 percent fewer black voters in the new district.
The Justice Department last week sent a letter requesting more information about the Mississippi process. Having a local judge draw the state's plan has never been done before, though the state Supreme Court upheld the practice last year.
Brian Perry, who edits the MagnoliaReport.com, an online survey of Mississippi politics, said the difference between the state court and federal court plans could sway the November vote.
"The new district is going to be a battle for the independent, conservative voters," Mr. Perry said. "[Mr.] Shows and the Democrats hope with a higher [black voting population] they'll get a couple percentage points in the Democratic base."
Audrey Hudson contributed to this report.

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