- The Washington Times - Monday, December 22, 2003

DALLAS — Final arguments begin in Austin today as Texas Democrats attempt a last-ditch effort to stave off a congressional-redistricting plan that likely would end the careers of a handful of longtime party lawmakers.

A three-judge federal panel — two Republicans and a Democrat — heard testimony by Democrats last week in the suit claiming that the recently passed redistricting legislation was unfair to minorities and rural voters.

Republicans responded by pointing out that although every elected state officeholder in Texas, excluding members of the Legislature, is a Republican, Democrats hold a majority of U.S. House seats, 17 to 15.

The Democratic plaintiffs say the current law, passed after months of brutal infighting in the Legislature, including three special sessions, is the worst gerrymandering in Texas’ history.

Plaintiffs also have bristled because the major thrust and insistence to get the new plan into law came not from state Republicans, but from Tom DeLay, the majority leader of the U.S. House. Mr. DeLay discussed the issue with state Republican leaders many times this year by phone and in person.

Some Texas politicians — from both sides of the aisle — claim the animosity that the partisan bill has caused will be felt for many years. It motivated Democrats to bolt from both houses to try to avoid being voted down.

The bill means that several well-known Democrat lawmakers — including Martin Frost of Arlington and Lloyd Doggett of Austin — will find themselves in districts with little or no chance of winning re-election and probably will result in Republicans’ winning 22 of the state’s 32 seats in Congress.

Actions last week from Austin and Washington gave little hope for the Democrats.

The U.S. Justice Department, which must approve such redistricting to ascertain that voters’ rights have not been violated, weighed in on the side of Republicans on Friday.

Federal judges also tossed out a portion of the Democrats’ case in Austin — which had claimed that the Legislature had no right legally to redistrict except every decade.

“With regard to the plaintiffs’ argument to mid-decade redistricting, the point is not well-taken,” said 5th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Patrick Higginbotham. “The Legislature is not prohibited from redistricting.”

Also Friday, Texas Secretary of State Geoffrey Connor announced he had received a letter from the U.S. Justice Department, saying, “The Attorney General does not interpose any objection to the specified changes” in the recently passed Texas bill.

“I have never doubted that [Attorney General] John Ashcroft would rubber-stamp Tom DeLay’s power grab,” said Mr. Doggett, whose district — if the Republican plan wins out — would be heavily Republican, making it virtually impossible for him to win re-election to a fifth term.

Mr. Frost, whose district has been carved to pieces, was equally livid last week. He is the senior member of the Texas congressional delegation.

“President Bush should hope the courts rescue him from going down in history as the president whose Justice Department gutted the Voting Rights Act,” Mr. Frost said.

The state’s Democratic members of Congress also want the Justice Department to release a memo from career lawyers who they say opposed approving the plan but were overruled.

“The public also deserves a full explanation for why Attorney General Ashcroft allowed political appointees to overrule the Voting Section’s professional finding that the proposed map violates Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act,” the Democrats said in a prepared statement.

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